Trash To Treasure

Turn back the clock to 1966--the year your favorite band, the Beach Boys, released the epic “Good Vibrations” and your second-favorite band, the Beatles, released Eleanor Rigby, which included the hit “Yellow Submarine”-- and pretend for a moment you live in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

This bustling city has already experienced the type of growth now common to other cities and towns--the type of growth that overwhelms building departments, zoning departments and, of course, park boards, leaving its citizens with the ever-increasing feeling they live in an urban jungle full of people, cement and, in this particular case, stink, caused by the 50-acre landfill in the very heart of town.

Obviously, something had to change.

Mt. Trashmore

As with any change, anywhere, there needed to be a spark, a leader, a catalyst pushing ever forward. In the case of Virginia Beach, that spark came in the form of Roland E. Dorer, Director of the State Health, Insect and Vector Control Department. He had a vision to turn the 50-acre landfill into a first-class recreation site.

Because the site had a high water table, Dorer proposed to build up (literally covering the landfill with tons and tons of soil) rather than to excavate. And thus, Mt. Trashmore was born.

With an initial grant of $192,674 (remember, this is 1966) and matching funds from the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the city began the process of building a park that would become a unique landmark and a popular recreational site. But more importantly, the city successfully developed and executed a new idea, literally showing the rest of the world that it was possible to safely turn a landfill into a public park.

Cresting at 68 feet above sea level, the landfill is the highest point in the region. Officially opened to the public in 1973, the new Mt. Trashmore quickly became a fan favorite--a title it still holds 34 years later.

Through the years, neighboring property was purchased, expanding the park to 166 acres, 79 of which were covered by Lake Trashmore. Today, the park welcomes more than 1 million visitors each year, is in the top 25 of most visited parks in America, and has been voted the best park and best place to picnic and fly a kite by the citizens of Virginia Beach.

Special attractions include fish-laden lakes, wildlife, “Kids Cove” playground, built entirely by volunteer efforts, a super skate park, water-wise landscaping garden and a challenging jogging path. The park is also home to a variety of special events such as concerts, movies and even the occasional “living flag.” On September 11th, 2006, about 200 citizens, police and emergency workers came together to form a human flag in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Current Parks Director for the City of Virginia Beach, Rick Rowe is justifiably proud of Virginia’s trash-to-treasure park. As Rowe says, “Absolutely everyone should consider doing this, if they have the opportunity.”

Protecting Kids From Toxic Land

The legacy of Mt. Trashmore is found in the ever-increasing number of projects designed to turn landfills and other so-called brownfields into public parks and recreational spaces.

By definition, a brownfield is a site, or portion thereof, that has actual or perceived contamination and an active potential for redevelopment or reuse. Take, for example, the City of Orange, California.

On the west side of the city was a fence designed to keep children out of an old, 32-acre contaminated landfill site. It was not working. The draw of the wide-open space with ocean views was just too tempting to neighborhood kids looking to play some baseball. The city realized something needed to be done to reclaim the land and make it safe for all those would-be major leaguers.

Following Mt. Trashmore’s lead, the city applied for and received two $200,000 grants from the Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot Grant program. This 14-year-old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program requires a Phase I and Phase II Environmental Assessment, which works to answer the question, “What kind of dump is it?”

According to SCS Engineeer, Anthony J. Maggio, the answer to determines whether the site can be converted into a playground, golf course or nothing. As he notes, a toxic waste site has a very different cleanup requirement than a site where there are only buried tree stumps.

“The federal govenment has made it easy to do test studies and do the necessary steps to move ahead.” Maggio states, “The process is streamlined.”

As it turns out, the City of Orange landfill held all types of solid waste, construction debris and municipal waste. It was covered with soil and closed in 1957. The detailed analysis of the site’s soil (including analysis of water contamination, gas leakage and other environmental concerns) revealed a reclaimable site.

So, in 2005, park development began. Like its predecessor in Virginia Beach, the plan called for, among other items, a heavy layer of soil to be laid on the site.

The work is ongoing and nearing completion. Soon, the site will be without a fence and ready for the familiar ring of “Play ball!”

How And Where To Get Funding

Since the 2002 “brownfield” act was signed into law by President Bush, finding funds to revitalize underused, abandoned or contaminated properties has become much easier.

Technically, the Brownfield Economic Redevelopment Initiative is designed to empower states, communities and other stakeholders in economic redevelopment to work together in a timely manner to assess, safely clean up, and sustain reusable brownfields.

The EPA is funding assessment demonstration pilot programs (each funded up to $200,000 over two years), to assess brownfield sites and to test cleanup and redevelopment models. It also provides job training pilot programs (each funded up to $200,000 over two years), to provide training for residents of communities affected by brownfields to facilitate cleanup of the sites and prepare trainees for future employment in the environmental field. In addition, it offers cleanup revolving loan fund programs (each funded up to $500,000 over five years) to capitalize loan funds for the environmental cleanup of worthy sites.

These pilot programs are intended to provide the EPA, states, tribes, municipalities and communities with useful information and strategies as they continue to seek new methods to promote a unified approach to site assessment, environmental cleanup and redevelopment. The EPA’s Brownfields program encourages the revitalization of America's estimated 450,000 problem properties to productive community use.

Since the beginning of the program, the EPA has awarded 883 assessment grants totaling $225.4 million, 202 revolving loan and grants totaling $186.7 million and cleanup grants totaling $42.7 million.

For information on the December 20, 2006, Brownfields Tax Incentive Extended and Expanded guidelines visit: Brownfield’s Tax Incentive Page. For more information about the EPA Brownfield Incentive Program, visit:

Other Funding Sources

Other funding programs may be particular to individual states. Check your state government Web site for more information. For example, in Ohio, the “Clean Ohio Fund” and “Trails Program” provide money, advice and support for revitalizing qualified property. Virginia’s Mt. Trashmore was created too early to receive EPA funding. Its help came from an initial grant of $192,674 from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a matching fund from the Solid Waste Disposal Act. Maybe these avenues will work for your project.

It Takes A Team

If you are interested in turning an abandoned, trashy or contaminated parcel of land into a treasure, you will need help. Money, advice and volunteers are essential building blocks for a successful project. Many cities combine local, state and federal government grants with funds from private companies, organizations and individual contributors.

“It feels so good to know that I’m contributing to something that works for a community as a result of collaborative relationships,” says Carolyn J. Douglas, Regional Brownfields Coordinator and Team Leader for US EPA Region 9. “EPA funding can be a catalyst to make it happen.”

The trick is, before treasure is found, someone must be looking for it. Someone must see an eyesore for what it could be. Someone must go to his or her city government and say, “I see a park where there’s now only a dump.”

And, when that vision is spread to a team of dedicated believers, trash will be transformed into treasure.

Melanie Minch is a freelance writer in Medina, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at