On May 8, Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) prepared to present the final draft of a land use plan for the Lands End Subdivision’s Captain Sinclair property, a waterfront property on the Severn River in Gloucester. In this Virginia Sea Grant-funded project, the MURP team was tasked with developing a plan to convert the once-private 97-acre estate into a public recreation area.
There was an atmosphere of celebration as MURP students gathered with community members for a home-style lunch of fried chicken and potato salad before the presentation. For the two graduate student planners presenting this final plan, it was the culmination of months of work, revisions, and collaboration with the community.
With community input in mind, MURP students created a plan designed to highlight and protect the natural beauty of the Gloucester County waterfront. The feat wasn’t without its challenges. The MURP team had to consider the vulnerability of the ecosystem, as well as the site’s vulnerability to flooding. The team recommended building codes that follow best practices for construction in coastal locations, as well as natural features such as a living shoreline. The shoreline would incorporate natural plant life and mitigate the effects of coastal erosion.
“I’m excited that we were able to take a low-lying coastal environment and come up with viable uses for how the property could be utilized by the community while still being environmentally sensitive,” says Jim Smither, collateral professor of urban design and planning at VCU and one of the project leaders.
The final land use plan for the Captain Sinclair’s Recreation Area consisted of a passive and active scheme. In the passive scheme, the vision is a quiet recreational destination comprised of low-maintenance uses, including a trail system, canoe and kayak launch, and native nursery. The active scheme aspires to make the Recreation Area a research and educational focal point in Gloucester County, incorporating all the elements of the passive scheme with the addition of a bait and tackle shop, canoe and kayak rental station, and a marine research center.
Although the plans can be implemented incrementally, MURP students identified priority infrastructure improvements, with parking being the most essential. Currently, only limited parking is available along the waterfront and near the boat ramp. Pier replacement and a road-raising project to improve access to the site were identified as other priorities.
The cost of the road-raising project is estimated at over $300,000—the most expensive project in the plan. But some portions of the project would be eligible for funding through the Virginia Department of Transportation Recreational Access Program. The final land use plan identified other potential funding sources and recommended the formation of a Friends of Captain Sinclair’s Recreation Area group to seek donations.
After the presentation, the Middle Peninsula Public Access Authority voted unanimously to accept the land use plan as information. Lewis Lawrence, Secretary to the Public Access Authority, says that this motion serves two purposes.
“First, it’s a way to express gratitude and acknowledge the work that VCU has done. Without this collaborative partnership we wouldn’t be in the position we are now to plan how we’ll manage the property moving forward. Second, it gives us more time to digest everything. Because we don’t have the financial resources available to implement the entire plan today, we have to accept it as information only,” Lawrence explains.
Since the presentation, some funding sources have already been secured. Pier renovations for the canoe and kayak launch are already underway and the Department of Forestry has provided funding to build a Maritime Coastal Demonstration Forest. The Demonstration Forest will consist of native plants and include educational signage about benefits of reforestation to the local environment. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has also provided $200,000 to build a living shoreline and the Virginal Coastal Zone Management program has awarded funds to design and build a song bird and native plant habitat area. These ideas were inspired by community input from three public meetings MURP students held over the past year.
“What’s been great about this project is that it had a community focus and we were able to get the community perspective,” says MURP student Josh Mallow. “If we had approached this project from just a design point of view, I don’t know if it would have been as successful.”
Although some portions of the plan have already been funded, it may be some time until all of the proposed uses become reality. Still, Mallow plans to keep up with the site’s progress.
“Even though I’m graduating I definitely want to keep up with the site and see what happens. I’ve put my heart and soul into this project and I want to see how it turns out,” Mallow says.
By Katharine Sucher, staff writer