River Farm to remain closed this spring

River Farm to remain closed this spring
The American Horticultural Society closed River Farm to the public on Nov. 9, citing COVID-19 and the safety of staff and visitors as the reason. Community members and volunteers have questioned the motivation behind this decision. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Since 1973, historic River Farm, which was once owned by George Washington, has provided the public with views of the Potomac River and access to its flowering gardens when spring comes around.

This spring is different. The American Horticultural Society, the current owner of the property, closed River Farm’s house and gardens to the public on Nov. 10, shortly before the AHS board announced it was putting the Horticultural Landmark on the open real estate market.

The board said its decision to sell the property stemmed from the financial drain of maintaining River Farm during the pandemic. According to AHS, a national organization, the sale of River Farm would allow it to better achieve its larger mission.

At the time of the closure in November, AHS cited a spike in COVID-19 cases. The organization had also closed the property for a short time in spring 2020.

With cases declining and vaccines becoming more readily available, community members and AHS’ dedicated volunteers were hopeful that the property could open again come spring 2021. However, according to a statement issued by the AHS board, the historic property will remain closed to the public, with the exception of pre-scheduled tours and events.

“We had hoped to re-open River Farm this spring, however due to limited staff we currently have no outdoor site supervision,” according to AHS’ statement. “Because of this, our insurance company has strongly advised us not to re-open River Farm for walk-in visits at this time. For now, we will continue to provide access by appointment only for scheduled tours and rental events. We appreciate the community’s understanding as their safety is our priority.”

Katherine Ward is a longtime volunteer at River Farm and president of the neighboring Wellington Civic Association. She recalled walking the grounds and attending an event or fundraising gala at River Farm with her fellow community and garden club members. Ward characterized the past few months of River Farm news as “disappointing.”

With the weather getting nicer, the days getting longer and the situation around COVID-19 improving in Virginia, Ward questioned AHS’ decision to keep the property closed.

“When the CDC speaks about being outdoors and everybody has ostensibly for the last year or so locked down because of COVID … here’s a prime example of a property that was given to [AHS] for the specific purpose of being kept open to the public,” Ward said.

The public and volunteers may not be allowed to wander the property, but AHS continues to maintain River Farm’s greenery using Chapel Valley Landscape Company, a local landscaping vendor.

The decision to use a private company instead of AHS’ local, loyal volunteers rubbed the community the wrong way, Ward said. Volunteers have not been allowed on the property since Feb. 25.

(Read more: AHS declines River Farm offer)

“They could have used all those wonderful volunteers that have been there for years and years and years and know exactly what they’re doing,” Ward said.

The closure announcement came after AHS declined an offer made by regional parks association NOVA Parks and local nonprofit Northern Virginia Conservation Trust on March 1 to purchase River Farm. The organization’s recent decisions have led community members, nonprofits and local, state and federal politicians to question AHS’ stated desire to keep the property open to the public, even after the property is sold.

“It just doesn’t really add up in terms of, on the one hand, saying, ‘We want this property to remain in public hands and we want it to remain as a single lot and not divided’ and then seemingly do whatever it takes to drag this out, to buy themselves more time to find another deal rather than negotiate,” Alan Rowsome, NVCT executive director, said.

NOVA Parks’ offer proposed paying for the property over the course of a few years at a price that was in line with the tax assessed value of the property, about $17 million. AHS listed the property at $32.9 million.

In the offer, NOVA Parks also included plans for a conservation easement on the property, which would immediately bring millions of dollars into AHS’ coffers. In a statement, AHS Board Chair Terry Hayes said the board “concluded that their offer as currently written does not meet AHS’ needs.”

“They said they wanted more money, they wanted more money earlier,” Paul Gilbert, NOVA Parks’ executive director, said.

An AHS representative declined to comment on how many offers have been made on the property outside of the offer submitted by NOVA Parks.

After a months-long fundraising campaign that brought together a coalition of private and public stakeholders, Gilbert echoed Ward’s assessment: It was “disappointing.”

Despite AHS’ decision, the organization “kept the door open” for further negotiations, and NOVA Parks and NVCT are still eager to find a solution that keeps the property open to the public, Rowsome said.

“I think we’re going to find a way forward to continue to discuss this with them and to raise money and to make clear that there’s one option ahead,” Rowsome said.

As the negotiation process continues, local jurisdictions and state politicians are looking for other ways to protect the property. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors authorized county staff to explore and consider placing a historic overlay district on River Farm.

“Historic overlay districts provide regulations over and above the regular zoning protection to better protect those unique areas, sites, and buildings that are of special architectural, historic, or archaeological value to local residents and visitors,” according to the Fairfax County website.

Once a historic overlay district is established, any new developments or changes to the property would go to the Fairfax County Architectural Review Board for consideration.

“What it essentially does, is it adds a number of layers of bureaucracy and sign off if you wanted to make changes to the property, to the zoning because it shouldn’t be easy, theoretically, to make those sorts of changes to a place with historic significance,” Rowsome said.

The proposed historic overlay district goes before the Fairfax County Planning Commission on March 17 before heading to the Board of Supervisors on April 13.

The gates to River Farm might be shut to the public, but with community, private and government actors united in their desire to save the property, the future of River Farm remains open.

“We’re here and we’re interested, and we’re going to pursue it as long as we can,” Gilbert said.

(Read more: Inova to open vaccine distribution center at Victory Center)