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Posted January 3, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Shenandoah County offered 300 acres for park

Board of Supervisors has until April 3 to decide whether to accept land gift

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK - Shenandoah County could add nearly 300 acres to its cache of parkland through a gift from the late Zula Marie Wagner.

But the Board of Supervisors has a limited time to decide whether to accept the land gift.

Parks and Recreation Director Pam Sheets gave a presentation on the proposed Mack and Zula Wagner Regional Park developed by the advisory commission and staff to the Board of Supervisors at a work session Thursday.

Zula Wagner, who died April 4, 2012, stated in her will that she wanted to give five parcels covering 297.6 acres to the county. A 1.37-acre parcel owned by Zula Wagner's sister, Iva Funkhouser, also would join the park area once she dies, according to Sheets. The total park area would span 298.98 acres.

The advisory panel has recommended the county accept the donation and notify the Zula Wagner estate by April 3. Then the county would develop the park in phases, according to the panel.

Wagner family friend Eddie Dean spoke to the board in support of the effort. But Dean acknowledged the gift comes at a bad time for the county economically because of the financial requirements involved should the locality accept the land and have to keep up the property as a park.

Should the county not accept the property, Dean expressed fear that the land would remain open to development.

Supervisors asked questions about access to the property, such as tree coverage, any public hunting allowed, the quality of the ponds on the land.

"You could put in a phenomenal lake," Dean said, noting that most ponds don't go dry.

Dean told the board the property still contains several old buildings, including a log springhouse. Funkhouser still lives in a home on the property, Dean said.

Supervisor David Ferguson asked if the county would violate the will if it failed to begin development of the property as a park within 10 years of receipt.

"You have to do something with the property," said County Attorney J. Jay Litten. "You can't let the property just sit there, but you don't have to do much."

A locality lost donated land when it failed to spend any money on the gifted property, Litten advised. But Shenandoah County could follow the rules of the will by spending some but not much money to maintain the parkland.

Sheets told the board the county would need to do some assessment of the property early on in the development process.

Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli sits on the advisory board.

"It's a wonderful gift," Baroncelli said, but warned that the county shouldn't set a precedent by not accepting such a donation.

"There's more pros than cons," Baroncelli added.

Sheets said she would prefer to see the county create a master plan for the property, if accepted, rather than have trails or other amenities created and then relocated after only a short time.

Chairman Conrad Helsley suggested the board take action well before the deadline. But supervisors and officials noted questions remain about the legal ramifications of the gift and the will.

Advisory panel member Larry Smith told the board such a donation of this size remains rare. The county could develop the area as a regional park, defined by the state as 100-500 acres, within certain distances from population centers. Such development likely would span 10 to 30 years as the county grows, Smith explained. The regional park could draw users from in and around the county.

Smith highlighted a long list of potential development partners for the project.

Wagner's will gives the county until April 3, 2013 to accept the land donation.

The will states that "the property, or any part thereof, must never be transferred, sold, exchanged or encumbered by the County." The county also must provide funding to maintain the park, according to the will. Failure by the county to abide the wishes stated in the will would cause the property to revert to any residual beneficiaries of the decedent.

As parks officials noted, acceptance of the gift would achieve some goals of the county's 2025 Comprehensive Plan, including the protection of its natural resources, ensuring the locality's rural and open character.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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