County park plan stalled over costs

WOODSTOCK – The future of Shenandoah County’s Keister Park remains uncertain and local leaders say hurdles put its development out of reach.

The Board of Supervisors heard a report from County Administrator Mary T. Price on Thursday that outlined the history of the property in the years leading up to the purchase and the local effort to develop the land into a park. Price provided the information at the request of District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz, who broached the idea of the county selling or disposing the property.

The county already has spent $584,864 on the property. That amount includes the purchase price of $475,000 plus $79,000 to develop a master plan for the future park and other costs associated with the project. The county offset the costs with $431,575 in grants, leaving the local expenses at $153,289. But state transportation officials say the county would need to build an access road to reach the site if they intend to develop the land into a park. Estimates put the cost of an access road at several million dollars.

Information provided by Price at the board’s work session indicates that supervisors entered into an agreement in June 1999 to option 151 acres, known as the Keister Family Trust No. 2, for potential use as a state park. Later that month the board appointed members to the Parks Exploration Committee, who met in August to discuss the Strasburg River Property that included canoe access, funding sources and uses of the site.

Minutes from the Parks Exploration Committee’s May 15, 2000,  meeting notes that the property does not meet the criteria for a state park and the county’s director of parks and recreation was working on grant funding. The Board of Supervisors granted a one-year extension on the option for the Keister property on May 23, 2000.

A letter from director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation to the county attorney in June 2000 lists funding options for public ownership and development of the park.

The county director of parks and recreation received notice in mid-January 2001 that the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation awarded Shenandoah County a grant of $306,575. The Board of Supervisors approved a second, one-year extension on the property in April 2001 as well as a resolution to apply for up to $125,000 through the Virginia Outdoors Fund to use for the property development.

The county received a grant for $125,000 in June 2001. The director of parks and recreation received word from the attorney for the Keister property indicating a price reduction of $25,000. The Board of Supervisors authorized Bowman Consulting Group to survey the Keister property in February 2002 at a cost of $3,200, of which the Keister family paid $1,000.

The Board of Supervisors took action March 26, 2002, to buy the Keister property for $475,000 using grant money and to pay the difference from the general fund.

In August 2001, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation Board of Trustees sent a resolution requesting legislation to establish a new national park. Strasburg Town Council sent a resolution of support for such a park in October 2001. The county administrator received a letter from several organizations in February 2002 to begin talks related to the creation of the Cedar Creek Battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation National Historic Park. The Board of Supervisors approved a resolution in April 2002 supporting the creation of the park. Legislation created the park in December 2002.

Since the county bought the property, the Board of Supervisors approved a $79,000 proposal from View Engineering in January 2005 to perform a master plan and the first phase of construction documents for the Keister tract. The Board of Supervisors approved a resolution in May 2005 supporting a Virginia Outdoors Fund grant for the Keister tract that indicates the proportionate share of the costs of the program will be provided up to $200,000. The county received an award of $140,425. The resolution also dedicates the Keister tract for public outdoors recreational purposes in perpetuity.

The county approved the use of fiscal 2005 unspent capital improvement funds as well as an additional $60,500 as a match of up to $200,000 grant for completion of the second phase of the project. Supervisors adopted the Keister Park Master Plan in October 2005.

The Virginia Department of Transportation held a public meeting with private landowners who lived along Pouts Hill Road in January 2006. Some landowners did not want to allow VDOT to stake properties to identify the potential right-of-way. The county withdrew from receiving the $140,425 in grant funds, enabling the locality to apply for more money in the future.

Development of the master plan has not been rekindled since the economic downturn and the lack of funds to provide local matches for grant funds.

The county leased the property to farmers through rental agreements that existed with the Keister family. The county received $2,000 per year through the agreement. The lease ended Dec. 31, 2014. The county collected $22,000 through the life of the lease.

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