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Forwood Preserve Park restoration efforts get a boost, but is it enough?

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media

This week, Larry Nagengast updates us on progress to transform a wooded site into something that looks like a park.

New Castle County has just under 250 park sites. About a year and a half ago, contributor Larry Nagengast put the spotlight on one of them – the lesser-known and little-used Forwood Preserve Park in Brandywine Hundred.

Some of that park’s neighbors were mounting an effort to restore it and give it some purpose. The effort faces numerous challenges, but some good news arrived about five months ago.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on the progress to restore Forwood Preserve Park

A long-neglected swath of New Castle County parkland, overgrown with bamboo and invasive vines and often muddied by stormwater runoff from nearby shopping centers and subdivisions, should begin receiving a facelift early next year, thanks primarily to a small band of neighbors and a $250,000 grant from the state.

The 16-acre property, known for years as the Allen Tract and renamed Forwood Preserve Park three years ago, sits near the center of Brandywine Hundred, bordered roughly by Marsh, Veale and Silverside roads, slightly downhill from the Shoppes of Graylyn and Branmar Plaza retail centers.

For four years, the Friends of Forwood Park Preserve group – six board members, about 20 people who show up for annual cleanups and some 70 supporters on the NextDoor social media site – have been urging the county to a little more than, well, put up a sign that certifies that the wooded area is indeed a park.

The county, however, doesn’t have money in its parks budget to do much more than occasionally clearing downed trees and picking up excessive debris.

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Fred Hartman and Marianne Cinaglia, Friends of Forwood Preserve board members

The situation began to change this summer, when the Friends received $250,000 from the state’s Community Reinvestment Fund that is part of the annual Bond Bill approved by the General Assembly. The grant was arranged by state Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, whose district includes the park site. Heffernan is chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Capital Improvement Committee, which decides which organizations will receive grants from the Community Reinvestment Fund.

Receiving the $250,000 was just the start, said Fred Hartman, a board member of the Friends group, who says it may take $600,000 or more to make the site look like a park.

Any portion of the grant that isn’t spent within three years can revert to the state, but it’s more likely that the Friends will be looking for additional funding sources before that deadline is reached, he said.

“Any help we can get is appreciated,” said Kendall Sommers, manager of the county government’s Parks Division, which oversees more than 240 sites.

Right now, the Friends and the county are trying to work out what happens next. It’s a bit of a delicate dance, with the Friends envisioning trails like those in the county’s Lynnfield Park, about a mile away, and the county not having a clear vision of what it would like to see. Also, it’s the county’s land but the Friends are currently holding the purse strings. While Sommers said the county is used to working with Friends groups, like those that support the larger Rockwood and Brandywine Springs parks, this Friends group is handling a significant sum for the first time, so there’s the matter of new partners reaching agreement on making decisions, setting priorities and how the money changes hands when contractors are hired to work on the desired improvements.

“We can drive this thing. We can do it through the county [but] it’s still slow interaction,” Hartman said. “We’re friends. We and they are trying to be friends.”

The top priorities

The county and the Friends agree that the first step is to clear out wisteria and other invasive vines that are blocking pathways and choking tree canopies. Sommers said she has issued a request for proposals and expects to have a better idea of the cost by the end of the year.

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
One of the top priorities at Forwood Preserve is removing invasive vines that block pathways and choke the tree canopy

There’s not enough clearance on the site for bulldozers to do much of the work. “It’s more handwork, more labor-intensive,” she said.

This sort of clearance work is best done in cold weather, so it’s likely to start in January or February.

Clearing the undergrowth will facilitate a second important step: beginning an engineering study on how to address the site’s drainage issues.

Stormwater management would require a significant portion of the project’s overall $600,000 estimated cost, according to Marianne Cinaglia, a Friends board member who became familiar with drainage issues during her work with the Council of Civic Organizations for Brandywine Hundred (CCOBH). Stormwater runoff from strip shopping centers and developments in the area has created an “erosion ditch” roughly 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep from Marsh Road into the center of the property, she said.

Sommers and Hartman said they will consider involving the New Castle Conservation District, which has experience with engineering studies, to examine the drainage issues. Because stormwater runoff flows down Marsh Road and in pipes underneath it, the state Department of Transportation will also likely be involved, they said.

Once the drainage issues are evaluated and the problems resolved, the Friends and the county can sketch out a design for the park.

“We would like the residents of neighborhoods around the park to have easy access, the ability to walk around the property, enjoy nature and gain an appreciation of its history,” Hartman said.

“We want to keep it in its natural state – minus the invasive species. Keep it a forested area,” Cinaglia added.

Picnic benches and playground equipment are not part of their vision.

As a vision for the park is developed, the matter of access will have to be resolved. Three well-trafficked roads border the site, but none have sidewalks. Creating a paved parking area would require taking down some of the trees that are integral to the property’s appeal and would add an impervious surface that could heighten the area’s drainage problems.

Hardly a walk in the park

Exploring Forwood Preserve can be an adventure – both for the physical challenges of navigating the site and the mysteries the property holds.

While the Friends have placed small yellow flags to mark several trails, massive fallen trees and tenacious vines cut off many pathways. The erosion ditch that Cinaglia mentioned impedes north-south movement in the area along Marsh Road. What Hartman calls “the bamboo forest” clogs more than two acres near the center of the property.

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Fallen trees, along with invasive vines and other debris, make it difficult to navigate Forwood Preserve.

Yet there are open areas scattered throughout. In recent years, these spaces have become hangouts for beer-drinking teenagers and, more recently, for squatters and the homeless. During a visit in mid-November, a large blue vinyl tent stood near three trees at the edge of a clearing.

Amid the overgrown brush, Cinaglia said, “there’s stuff in there, but what it is we don’t really know.”

Visitors, she said, might stumble upon “the bottom part of a barn, stone walls that defined a lot of the property. We have some aerial views that show a pond, a spring house … some foundation, some rock walls.”

One of those stone walls is all that remains from a house built in the early 19th century by Jehu Forwood, who had purchased the property in 1797 from the heirs of Joseph Grubb, a prominent early settler in Brandywine Hundred. While Grubb and Forwood are well-known names in the area, the property became known as the Allen Tract after Dr. John Allen and his wife Mildred, who lived there from 1937 to 1967.

This stone wall in Forwood Preserve is what remains from a house built in the early 19th century by Jehu Forwood,
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
This stone wall in Forwood Preserve is what remains from a house built in the early 19th century by Jehu Forwood,

When Allen retired and moved to Florida, he sold the property to a Pennsylvania developer, Donald Gaster, on the condition that the old house be preserved. Neighbors objected, however, when Gaster announced plans to build a 300-unit garden apartment complex on the site. Legal battles involving Gaster, New Castle County and neighborhood groups ensued. While those disputes continued, the house became a target for vandals and a haven for drug dealers.

Eventually the county had the house demolished, claiming it was a public safety hazard, and used its power of eminent domain to seize the property in 1976. The county promised residents it would develop the site as parkland but, more than 40 years later, still hadn’t fulfilled that pledge.

Then Hartman, Cinaglia and others started a dialogue with the county. In 2019, they convinced County Councilman John Cartier to sponsor a resolution renaming the site, and they created the Friends of Forwood Preserve Park. In addition to nudging the county to pay more attention to the property, they have organized annual cleanups to remove debris and clear overgrowth that can be tackled by hand.

Last year, their efforts drew attention from Heffernan, the area’s representative in the General Assembly. “I always drove by it. I knew it was overgrown and once a homeless encampment,” she said. “The Friends group was committed to restoring the property and making it accessible to the community. My role is to help them make it work.”

Ultimately, The Friends of Forwood Preserve would like to see it have trails like this one at another New Castle County park, Lynnfield Park

At Heffernan’s suggestion, the Friends wrote a proposal for a grant from the Community Reinvestment Fund. They estimated the cost of what they hoped to accomplish at $600,000.

While the $250,000 they received is less than half of what they need, “we’re really excited” to have the funds, Hartman said.

“Now we have to learn how to spend it,” he said. “We’re building a list, and we’re checking it twice.”

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.