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Alexandria’s Natural Resources Manager ‘retires early in frustration’ after battles within city government

Alexandria Natural Resources Manager Rod Simmons (courtesy photo)

Alexandria Natural Resources Manager Rod Simmons has been a prominent voice for environmental concerns around the city in recent years, but Simmons told ALXnow that battles behind the scenes have led him to retire after 27 years in city government.

Simmons, a city employee with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs, was at the center of controversies related to Taylor Run and other projects.

He was among the earliest voices warning the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project could do more harm than good. Simmons and critics of the project got into a back-and-forth over soil samples and other concerns about the project.

The city spent $1.8 million on the project and ended up with very little to show for it after the City Council said the plan needed further study and was eventually scaled back.

But those objections came with considerable backlash within city government, Simmons said, and he said it’s made it difficult to fulfill his role advocating for Alexandria’s natural resources.

“In the last two years, the workplace culture and conditions have become intolerable, from my perspective,” Simmons told ALXnow. “The problem is continual. I’ve been in opposition to the city’s agendas for increasing high-density development. All these projects, really over the last seven years, have come online and descended on the landscape of the city.”

While Simmons said many of those projects have been built in industrial zones or haven’t directly replaced natural resources, they’ve still put an increasing strain on the city’s natural resources.

“Development has a huge impact on waterways,” Simmons said. “We’ve got these edge cities, like the Hoffman Town Center area and Carlyle area, that put a huge burden on the little natural landscape like Hoof’s Run and African American Heritage Park, for instance. It stresses those areas and the wildlife that remains there. It contributes a significant amount of pollution to those streams and the Potomac River.”

Just this year, a lawsuit is forcing Alexandria to take a somewhat unconventional approach to combat its Potomac River pollution. Simmons said the increasing density is putting more cars on the road, eventually leading to more pollutants in Alexandria’s creeks and rivers.

Simmons also said usage of artificial turf, as was approved earlier this year at Eugene Simpson Park, is fundamentally at odds with the goals of protecting natural resources.

“Things like artificial turf and the forever plastics that come from that, those toxic chemicals that come from the rubberized pellets,” Simmons said. “Add the fact that you have to lay down enormous beds of gravel; it’s impervious surface because all the water goes into the already burdened storm drains is rushing into streams.”

Once those fields need replacing, too, Simmons said the city will be left with another pollution problem.

“There’s no recycling for those artificial fields; they end up being dumped in natural areas or wetlands,” Simmons said. “There’s no recycling for that, just like we realized there’s no recycling for anything else: it was a big lie by the plastics industry.”

While developments in Alexandria frequently cite LEED certification and energy efficiency, Simmons said that doesn’t matter much in terms of mitigating climate change.

“[The concern is] impervious surface, heat island index, the concrete jungle, all that sort of thing,” Simmons said. “We still have all the cars on the road. It’s too little, too late. I think the intentions are good, but they’re trying to make lemonade with something that’s not going to work. Smart Growth is an oxymoron.”

Simmons, who previously worked at the Winkler Botanical Preserve before joining the city in the late 90s, said he couldn’t keep fighting a losing battle in the city.

“It’s not me: any incumbent who is serving as natural resource manager would have this problem if they defended their job and stood up for it and took it seriously,” Simmons said. “It’s pretty clear that the city is going to have to reset itself and figure out what it really wants to do in terms of natural resource conservation and stewardship.”

Though Simmons is just three years shy of his goal of 30 years with Alexandria, he said not being allowed to fulfill his role as a natural resources manager is tantamount to tax fraud. He hopes his retirement spurs some locals to demand more natural resource protection from the city.

“I see it as exposure, as a wake-up call for the city, because the residents are going to have to demand this,” Simmons said.

Simmons said he also hopes, after he leaves, locals keep an eye on the forests near the current Inova Alexandria Hospital (4320 Seminary Road).

“We’ll be losing some really nice old forest around the Inova hospital once it moves to Landmark,” Simmons said. “That area will be up for maximum profit/development. These are our last natural areas left that aren’t claimed as city parkland.”

In the meantime, Simmons said an outside investigator has been hired by the city to investigate whistleblower retaliation claims files by Simmons, including claims of workplace harassment, wrongdoing and manipulation by senior management. Simmons said he was served two reprimands in the last year, in part for asking about unstable soil at the Potomac Yard Metro station.”

The City of Alexandria did not respond to questions about Simmons’ retirement or the whistleblower investigation.

A group called the Environmental Council of Alexandria, which includes former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, wrote a letter to City Manager James Parajon expressing their frustration with the situation leading up to Simmons’ retirement.

An excerpt from the letter is below:

As the City’s Natural Resources Manager, Rod has done his best preserve and protect the City’s natural environment for the last 27 years. A first-class botanist and ecologist, Rod’s contributions to science and conservation in Alexandria and regionally cannot be overstated. Rod is one of the only City scientists with the expertise to analyze and understand the negative environmental impacts of many of the City’s plans, while also having the integrity to bring these impacts to the public’s attention.

In recent years, however, the City has gone out of its way either to prevent Rod from commenting on projects that fall within his duties as the City’s Natural Resources Manager or threaten him with being terminated for rather trivial breaches of protocol as a City employee if he does speak out. Despite his conscientious and principled public service, Rod was forced to have PEER’s (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) legal staff represent him in his efforts to do his job as the City’s natural resource manager.

The most recent reprimand illustrates this point clearly. Rod was accused of sending a professional letter to Daphne Kott regarding the management of invasive species in Potomac Greens Park without first receiving the approval of his immediate supervisor. He was also accused of making a personal comment on ALXNOW (dated April 12, 2023) regarding the Taylor Run stream restoration project which the City claims was not becoming of a City employee. In this latter charge, he simply suggested that he thought the person that he was agreeing with was accurate in their assessment of the City’s actions.

The reasons for this latest reprimand are quite insignificant at best. Neither of these incidents were breaches of his responsibilities. Still, the City insisted on holding an administrative hearing to make it clear to Mr. Simmons that he must refrain from making any comments that contradict the City’s official line. This reprimand threatens him with termination if he does not comply with their demands. Clearly, the City’s rationale for pursuing this latest reprimand was to prevent Rod from doing his job and commenting publicly on the environmental impacts of development plans promoted by the City.

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