Hunn Nature Park’s grand opening isn’t until Saturday, but one look at the trails Tuesday morning shows it’s already had plenty of visitors.

On the path’s fresh stone dust, you can see tracks from small hooves and paws to webbed feet. The trail is shaded by a mix of oaks, hickory, black cherry, locust, red cedars and conifers. They provide a nesting bird habitat, from wetland birds like herons to hawks, woodpeckers and the occasional quail.

Jeremy Sheppard, assistant director at Kent County Parks and Rec, said this natural beauty makes the new park special.

“Most of our parks are built environments, and this one isn’t,” he said. “It’s very undeveloped compared to your Brecknocks, your Browns Branch – more natural. We’re not going to have football fields out here.”

According to Sheppard, there are 173 total acres – including the transitional St. Jones River wetlands.

“It’s a little bit isolated, so some may feel uncomfortable,” Sheppard said. “But for the people who need that and want that, to be out in nature, you’ll have this property to come to, but live minutes away in the city of Dover. You can walk from Silver Lake Park almost all the way down here and not hit a single road.

“You remove yourself from a lot of things just by walking around a simple loop.”

 

The park, nestled behind Gateway South shopping center with an entrance off Sorghum Mill Road, will open with nearly a mile of nature trails for walking, jogging and biking. An offshoot trail loops around a tidal basin, while the main artery will one day form another piece of the St. Jones Greenway, a 14-mile riverside pathway connecting the central county to the Delaware Bay through a series of recreation areas, a way to get around without a car.

The path to this trail was a long one, taking years of work and many volunteer hours.

From landing to landfill

The half-mile offshoot trail loops around an island in a tidal basin. Parks personnel have taken to calling it “the racetrack pond loop” after the go-kart track said to have once existed there.

From the path, a hiker can spot Lebanon landing, one of the Dover’s first commercial ports and a stop for Philadelphia-bound sail and steamships in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The nearby property takes its name from the Hunn family, Quaker landowners in the area since the early 1700s – and later, active abolitionists. The cellar of the property’s Wildcat Manor was a major link in the Underground Railroad, and John Hunn was fined nearly to ruin for helping escaping slaves.

 

Near the manor, a huddle of one-room shanties were built up with an accompanying outhouse and wells, housing emancipated slaves who worked on the property. They came to be known as “Hunn Town”, remnants of which are still visible today in the form of vine-covered hand pumps.

 

By the mid-twentieth century, 44 acres of the property were landfill. Operating from 1962 to 1973, the Wildcat Landfill became contaminated from disposal of paint sludge and municipal, industrial and latex waste. The EPA’s regional office reported the owners routinely violated their operating permits.

Starting in 1983, the EPA carried out remediation and cleanup, including hazardous waste disposal, installation of soil cover, the replacement of wells and groundwater monitoring. It removed the landfill from its National Priorities List of polluted sites in 2003.

Although remediated, the EPA has been monitoring since then, checking the three wells every five years. In 2010, it had concerns over a sheen on wet areas as an indicator of petroleum product waste, but samples came up clean.

Back to nature

After remediation, Harry VanSant and Carl Solberg, then director and assistant director of county Parks and Recreation respectively, worked to procure the property with an eye to restoring its natural beauty. Their vision was to develop the property as part of the St. Jones Greenway system.

In 2005, the 173-acre property was bought from Shirley Hunn for $489,000 through a DTF grant from DNREC, the Delaware Open Space Fund and Kent County Levy Court.

“When KC got their hands on the property, they wanted to see what we could do to take it back to how the land originally was, or as close to that as you could get,” Sheppard said. “One of the first things we wanted to do was take out invasive species and put local species back.”

Realizing that tranquility has been decidedly un-tranquil, with years’ worth of work spent scouting trails, clearing debris, planting new trees and groundcover and hauling dirt, soil and stone dust for new pathways. The work was in competent hands, spearheaded by Kent County parks supervisor Mike Rigby, his seven staff members and facilities specialist Wayne McCarty.

 

“Working as a team, we get a lot of different ideas and end up with better ones,” said McCarty.

When it comes to battling invasive species, you win some, you lose some. Beating back greenbrier from a fresh path, for example, just takes persistence, said Rigby.

“Yeah. We’ll keep spraying it till it gives up.”

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t give up.

“We had phragmites, which are very invasive because of their root system,” said McCarty. “The only way to get rid of them is to burn ‘em, but we’re right across from Dover Air Force Base housing and obviously they don’t want big fires right across from their houses. There were some suggestions made to plant an extremely aggressive competing plant, but that didn’t work. In the end, Mike [Rigby] and his team came out here and went hand-to-hand with it.”

Mike Rigby

The last piece was a parking lot, finished in December.

In the future, there are a few gaps to be bridged. Two spans are planned: one at the northeast side of the property to span ditches behind Gateway South Shopping Center, the other to close the water gap of the racetrack loop.

Since the latter is a tidal basin with navigable water, a bridge requires Coast Guard approval, said McCarty – but it hasn’t stopped him from getting a design ready.

“We found a vendor with a fiberglass bridge we can truck in piece by piece – single span, 110 feet,” he said.

People power

Kent County owns a bobcat or two, but to carry out the transformation, the heavy-duty machinery has been volunteer power.

“Our staff is seven people,” said McCarty. “We couldn’t do it without volunteers. They’re essential to successful planting; we’ve planted 6,000 or 7,000 trees.”

McCarty is largely responsible for finding volunteers. For the past several years, they’ve held two major outreach days a year – Make a Difference Day in the fall and Earth Day in the spring.

“These are the best days to plant, or do maintenance,” said McCarty. “Each time we’ve had at least 150 come out, and upwards of 300. When you bring 300 people out here, you can do a lot of work.”

The volunteers are a diverse bunch – from Girl Scouts to UD students and retirees – but the majority come from Dover Air Force Base.

“Military personnel have a strong desire to leave a place better than how they found it,” said McCarty. “The beauty of the military is that they’re already geared for the soft skills; they know how to follow instructions. That’s why I try to get them as team leaders; they know how to motivate folks.”

And following instructions is important. “We may have as much as $300 invested in one tree, but if you plant it wrong, it’s dead.”

Volunteers mostly assist with planting and trailblazing, said Rigby.

“If we were going to blaze a trail, my staff would go in and take some of the larger trees down, then take some of the smaller trees down, and then we’d leave it here for the volunteers to clean up. Some folks take the firewood.”

 

Volunteers provide valuable labor and financing, Sheppard pointed out. Every volunteer has a value for their time, based on estimated wages.

“Most of the state grants they county has used are 50-50 — we get 50 percent of the total grant, and have to bring another 50 percent in cash or in-kind value,” he said. “We add that all up, plus staff time and equipment costs, and that’s what we consider our in-kind grant.”

“So if we get a grant for $6,000 worth of trees, we have to come up with $6,000 worth of cash or volunteer work – and we always come up with volunteer work,” said Sheppard. “We’ll typically earn up to $20,000 in in-kind value from volunteers.”

“With the amount of work we’ve done out here, for every dollar the taxpayer’s paid, I will guarantee you that the volunteers have thrown in three or four dollars in value on top of that,” said McCarty. “It’s a good deal.”

The Hunn Park’s Saturday grand opening will be as much about as the people who made it happen as the park itself, said McCarty: “We want people to know how this park came to be; we wanted to recognize the volunteers.”

The opening will put new volunteers to work with a morning volunteer tree-planting session – 150 have signed up so far, he said. McCarty hopes the opening will spark future volunteer interest.

“We can never have enough volunteers,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a park that’s complete.”

The Hunn Park opening is 11 a.m. Saturday in the new parking lot off Sorghum Mill Rd. For volunteers, a safety training session Friday is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday work will begin at 9 a.m.