More than 10 years ago, Dave Worthington’s corner of the world was about to be turned upside down when a developer had plans for the land that bordered the home he’d lived in with his wife Julie Staggers since 2003.
Worthington, a long-time project manager for the Transatlantic Middle East District, was concerned that the developer’s actions were going to cause drainage issues, problems with school children’s safety, and affect the neighborhood property values. “I spoke to the City Engineer and members of the City Council and told them my concerns. They understood my position.”
Worthington formed a neighborhood residential committee and together they took the issue to the Winchester City Council, hoping they would side with his committee. And they did; the Council voted it down, but the issue was headed to Virginia courts and could have easily been overturned. Worthington knew he had to do something.
He was always a nature enthusiast but he said that his wife really brought it out of him. “Before this project, I’d helped with planting trees throughout Winchester as a way to increase our tree canopy. And I was a long-time member of the Natural Resources Advisory Board and even past chair before the City Council disbanded all such committees,” he said. “We had been discussing ways to keep certain areas for nature by marking them ‘no mow’ areas or wetlands for parts of a year. These areas flood frequently so to reduce the costs to the city and homeowners, it seemed the best idea to let these areas go natural.”
When it turned out that the land adjacent to Worthington’s home was in a 100-year floodplain with a one percent chance of flooding in any given year, Worthington went to the developer to talk. “I tried to talk him out of developing the entire project, but he didn’t want to stop. Finally, I asked him if he’d sell the 100 year floodplain land directly to me.”
Worthington wanted to preserve the land and create a habitat for nature within the city limits of Winchester, Va. When the developer agreed to the sale, the City of Winchester, City Council, and City Attorney all had to agree to the deal, and they did.
Talking about this land, Worthington explained: “All Route 11 water runs off and drains into the property. All pollutants, oils, fertilizers and garbage gets filtered into the wetlands area, so it acts as a natural filter; it keeps pollutants from going past, which of course helps in keeping water cleaner, since the pollutants then avoid washing downward.
Worthington also coordinated with several private organizations including Ducks Unlimited and the Potomac Conservancy.
“Ducks Unlimited was actively searching for a feeding area for migrating ducks, and the original idea was for the land to be a feeding ground. However, as the land matured and grass grew on all four sides the plan failed to work,” Worthington said. “And ducks won’t use it since they are worried about predators. But it turned out to be a reality for the Potomac Conservancy as it helps in its small way to keep the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers clean.”
“After the developer created the 100 year flood plain elevations, I eventually owned an acre of dirt,” he said. “We had a day lined up to plant native trees and shrubs, with lots of volunteers, but the day was so rainy, we canceled the planting. But, the Ducks Unlimited representative showed up anyway and started to plant. His dedication moved my wife and me to assist. So most of the initial planting was him, my wife and myself in the pouring down rain. We planted about 50 different native plants. Since then my wife and I have planted more native shrubs and trees with some surviving and others not.”
It took a lot of work to turn the floodplain acre from a dirt patch to a natural area with more than 200 different kinds of vegetation, mostly from native seeds and plants. “It’s really a lot of constant work. We have to keep invasive plants out so we’re always pruning and cleaning up the area. We have to take out plants that have a habit of just strangling anything that gets in their way, like morning glories, garlic mustard, Queen Ann’s Lace, and honeysuckle,” Worthington said.
He’s also had to remove signs that careless humans have been through – in the form of all sorts of trash, bottles and cans, even an abandoned motorcycle one time.
Due to the amount of natural soil, the plants absorb water so the ground is moist but it doesn’t become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It has become a natural habitat and home to opossum, ground hogs, skunks, foxes, deer, squirrels, all kinds of insects, turtles, many varieties of birds, and even some snakes.
A ceremony commemorating this space for nature in the middle of Winchester’s asphalt and concrete, was held in June 2008 with Winchester’s Mayor at the time, Elizabeth Minor, City Engineers and City Councilmen attending, and was covered by several local newspapers.
“This area is quite deep,” he said. “The bottom is below land level on all four sides. It’s really nice when you’re down inside. You just don’t feel like you’re in the city anymore. You’re surrounded by nature with natural drainage.
“I have even more respect for nature now. There is always something unexpected in there,” Worthington said. “I usually can’t wait to get out of work to go enjoy the bounty of that nature. It’s just such a joy. Some of what we planted were just seeds or young plants less than two feet high and now, ten years later, they are thriving and nine to 10 feet tall. We have witch hazel, spice-bush, elderberries, swamp oak, red oak, white oak, maple trees – it’s been so rewarding.”
Worthington, who would like to be remembered as a good person who cared about people and nature said, “It’s really a labor of love and it’s my gift to the City of Winchester.”