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Alexandria leaders boiling mad over watered down stream restoration projects

Taylor Run (photo via City of Alexandria)

The first time the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run restoration projects went to City Council, some in the community were angry. The second time around, it’s city leaders that are angry.

The core of the problem seems that, in an effort to appease everyone involved, Alexandria ended up with a solution that accomplishes virtually nothing when it comes to Strawberry Run.

Years after the controversy first reared up about plans to make changes to Taylor Run and Strawberry Run, with the aim of reducing erosion, those plans came back to Alexandria’s City Council earlier this week and the elected officials were less than pleased with the results.

The stream restoration projects were paused after concerns were raised about the reliability of the data behind the project. The City Council voted to send the projects back for more study and to build more consensus. But, more than a year after the project was scheduled to come back to the City Council for further review, Mayor Justin Wilson criticized the new version of the stream restoration for being scaled down into irrelevance and still not gathering the needed consensus.

The main criticism was focused on plans for Strawberry Run, which involve spending $1.2 million on spot improvements rather than any significant, long-term improvements.

Wilson also criticized the report for saying the city should work with fluvial systems and stream restoration expert John Field on future stream projects, saying it is inappropriate for a report to write a private company into a city policy recommendation.

“What is the recommendation at Strawberry Run, besides ‘don’t cut down trees, don’t have roads, don’t remove the trash that is put in there unless we absolutely have to?'” Wilson said. “The recommendation seems to be that whatever we do, which hasn’t yet been determined, we hire this guy to do it.”

Jesse Maines, stormwater division chief, fielded most of the questions and criticism about the project.

“I think there’s some ambiguity there,” Maines said. “A lot of this is getting a designer onboard and starting to design ‘this is how it would look and this is the impacts.'”

“Is there not a consensus on what we’re going to do?” Wilson said. “I have to say I’m a little bit incredulous we spent two years building consensus and the recommendations appear to be: in the future we should run a bunch of things by a committee and hire a guy that everyone likes. What is the recommendation? What are we doing?”

City Council member Sarah Bagley and Wilson both expressed concern that the policy recommendation pushing the city toward contracting a private party skirted around the city’s typical procurement process.

“I have been involved or adjacent to public procurement for over two decades and I have never heard of anything like this; where a policy recommendation is approved specifically calling for a private firm,” Wilson said. “I’ve never heard anything like that and I’d love to be the one negotiating on behalf of Dr. Field after we would adopt that.”

Maines said the spot stabilization could help prevent further erosion on Strawberry Run, but the admittedly diminished scope of the project left Wilson and others on the Council wondering whether the cost justified the lackluster benefits.

“When we went into this process we were achieving a significant amount of public amenities,” Wilson said. “Excise that from the project, there isn’t the same [significance]… Why would we do anything here? Why is there any reason we would do anything on Strawberry Run? Reading these recommendations, my conclusion is we should do absolutely nothing on Strawberry Run. Period. Someone explain to me why that shouldn’t be the conclusion I draw here.”

Maines said a “no-build” option was presented to the consensus-building group

What’s more, for all the work around building consensus, Bagley said she still had concerns that the improvements are reliant on access to the easements with no clear evidence that the City of Alexandria could get the access it needs.

“It’s absolutely a fair concern,” Deputy Director for Infrastructure and Environmental Quality Bill Skrabak said.

City Council member Kirk McPike suggested tabling any further consideration of improvements to Strawberry Run until that can be compared with other projects. With some help from retiring City Attorney Joanna Anderson, City Council member Kirk McPike moved to accept recommendations on Taylor Run — with an amendment to use the standard procurement policies — and tabling any further work on Strawberry Run.

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