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Roanoke Group
of the Virginia Chapter

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SIERRANS TESTIFY AGAINST MILL MOUNTAIN DEVELOPMENT

January 24, 2008 - Three members of the Roanoke Group leadership testified at the meeting of Mill Mountain Advisory Committee in opposition to the development of a restaurant and new parking lots at Mill Mountain Park.  Here are excerpts from their testimony:

Bill Modica (Group Vice Chair):

Mill Mountain Park is a treasure- an area of green space located within the city limits and easily accessible for citizens and visitors. It is valued for its quiet, its view of the city and its peaceful setting. Contrary to what some say, it is heavily used, when the weather permits, and conveniently closed when covered in ice and snow.  Contrast that to a struggling restaurant that must stay open to survive, no matter how badly the lone access road is iced over, and one that needs to operate every weekend and long into the evening in the hopes of turning a profit. That requires many delivery trucks, lots of staff parking spaces, more public guest parking lots for large numbers of customers and continuous trash removal as well as lots of loud machinery and equipment running all hours and every day. Not to even mention the construction nightmare of bulldozers, worker vehicles and construction materials needed to create the building in the first place.

Citizens of the Roanoke Valley (and not just the City) have said over and over and loud and clear that they value green spaces for the quality of life and for peaceful recreational use. They don’t really need another restaurant -- we have more than enough in our area already. In fact, many restaurants are already stressed trying to find staffing and turn a profit.  And once we give up our park land to create another business venture, what do we do if it fails to capture the business income it needs to survive?  So many (over 90% I’ve been told) don’t make it past their first year. Once it is built, what if “they” don’t come? Who is stuck with the upkeep costs and maintenance? Not Valley Forward, apparently. 

Mill  Mountain does need something, however, It needs a conservation easement placed on it by Roanoke City Council to protect it for the future as open space. That is the only way to insure that the Fishburn family is not asked again and again to consider projects and buildings up there. I support the Western Virginia Land Trust in their call for a permanent easement to be placed on the mountain. We are one of the few cities in the country with a whole mountain of natural beauty inside city limits. Lets keep it that way, forever and ever.

I also don’t understand the type of thinking that leads one to conclude that any “vacant” land needs something built on it as soon as possible.  I came to Roanoke, like many others, because it wasn’t all covered over with buildings. I like the trees and streams and the open fields along the roads. That is what makes this area so wonderful. While we do need stores and houses, I know, we need woods, wildlife and birds too. At least, I do. So let’s start putting a higher value on recreational space, for our own use and for the future, when we really need it, and let’s find a way to preserve what we have left. Where we have private ownership, I ask the owners to think about the future needs of society. Consider a conservation easement. Where we have public ownership, I urge our government officials to see into the future when land is scarce. Save whatever you can for our kids to enjoy. It may be all that is left.

I recently returned from a visit to New York City. A very busy place.  Right in the middle of Manhattan is the Grand Central Park. In fact, every borough has large parks set aside for residents to enjoy. And all are well used, if occasionally abused. That took vision. I wish we could show that kind of vision more often. Our Greenways system is a good start. But it needs to be funded and finished. It needs to be treasured and maintained. And our parks and open spaces, our wooded mountain tops and our tree shaded riverbanks need to be protected from those who seek a quick profit at the expense of our future needs and at the cost of our common good. Let’s start talking about how we can do that- save our heritage, not sell it off. That’s the discussion I can’t wait to join in.

Annie Krochalis (ExCom Member and Smart Growth/Transportation Chair):

The Sierra Club is vitally concerned that the urban environment, in which a majority of this country's residents and a majority of our members live, be healthy and stimulating since the physical state of a city reflects the well-being of its people. The Sierra Club is also concerned that urban areas, which consume the majority of our resources, be highly efficient and non-polluting so as to minimize our impacts upon this planet's resources and environment.

The resolution of the Executive Committee is as follows : "Roanoke Group of the Sierra Club opposes development of Mill Mountain Park for commercial purposes, based on our existing policy on development which includes the following points: 1) Natural  areas and open spaces should be preserved, 2) Public park lands should be off limits to commercial development, and 3) Development should be undertaken only in areas already served by adequate public infrastructure."

While there are no drawings to scale available yet, our concerns are the protection of open park area from a commercial project including two parking lots requiring retaining walls. This would require changes to the mountain impacting water to Crystal Springs, soil and erosion control, and reduction of green space and the existing eco-system. There are questions about the capacity of the existing public infrastructure to support this project, including  adequate street, water, sewer and other public services to support this facility. Once a ridge top is lost, there is no going back in time.

I am also concerned that other projects, such as Brugh Tavern and Explore Park have struggled while following a similar business model. Is that loss consistent with the “Vision 2001-2020 the City of Roanoke’s Comprehensive Plan”, the Mill Mountain Land Management Plan, and the supplementary “Vision Implementation Report 2007” ?

These documents speak to open air concert venues.  Over the years this committee has changed from the Mill Mountain Development Committee to the Mill Mountain Advisory Committee; just as, over the years,  bids for development of the mountain have been defeated. Popular support in the 1960’s and 70’s for development met a conclusive defeat in 1975 by the Mill Mountain Development Committee: “Perhaps the committee had also begun to grasp what businessmen in previous eras had learned the hard way—that despite its recreational opportunities, the mountain could not sustain a profitable tourism business”.

True progressive thinking does not repeat the failed theories of the past. I respectfully request that the Committee honor the intent of the Fishburn family donation and retain the current open space park.

Mary Bishop (Area Coordinator, City of Roanoke):

During 18 years at the Roanoke Times I often wrote about the city of Roanoke — its history, its neighborhoods, its many issues. The newspaper gave me the time to study our city, to visit other cities, and to produce detailed stories. We wanted to help citizens put Roanoke in a larger context. We wanted Roanokers to understand how the city became what it is today and what our future might be.

One thing I learned was how privileged we are and how unusual it is to have a mountain park only blocks from our downtown. We are all so lucky to have Mill Mountain. My husband and I often walk up the mountain on Sunday afternoons. It is one of those peaceful places where everyone can come to enjoy it, free of charge.

The city of Roanoke is making real progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and making Roanoke cleaner and greener.

In light of this, the way to move Roanoke truly "forward" is to keep Mill Mountain free of commercial development and the pollution that would necessarily result from it — to preserve this precious open space. The progressive path is to leave the mountain be.