After near sale, future of River Farm looks brighter

After near sale, future of River Farm looks brighter
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Blooming flowers and new buds are not the only signs of renewal at historic River Farm this spring. After more than a year of strife within River Farm’s board of directors, including the looming possibility that the property would be sold, the future is looking a little brighter for George Washington’s former property.

River Farm, a sprawling piece of land that now serves as the headquarters for the American Horticultural Society, became the unlikely centerpiece of a year-long dramatic saga when the AHS board put the property up for sale in September 2020. At the time, the organization claimed the sale of the Potomac River-side site would benefit its national horticultural mission.

Opposition to the sale spread like wildfire through the surrounding community, which has long volunteered to help maintain the property and used the site as an event venue. Many were quick to point out the sale violated the terms of philanthropist Enid Haupt’s original $1 million donation to AHS that allowed it to purchase the site in the 70s. Haupt had explicitly stated her desire to keep the property open to the public, something the community feared would be lost should the enviably located site be purchased by a private developer.

The battle over River Farm caught the eye of local and state political leadership as well. Then Gov. Ralph Northam wrote a formal letter to AHS stating his support for keeping River Farm open to the public. Meanwhile, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine began investigating AHS to determine the legality behind the board’s decision to sell.

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

The controversial decision to list River Farm divided AHS’ board, with five board members supporting the sale and five others fighting against it. After months of stalemate, on Sept. 30, 2021, a little more than a year after AHS first announced the sale, five board members who supported the sale resigned. River Farm was subsequently taken off the market.

Six months later, the darkest chapter in AHS’ century-long history seems to be over, and the future of River Farm is more hopeful for both the board and community.

Since October, AHS has hired a new president and CEO, Suzanne Laporte, and brought on three new board members: Amy Golden, Scott Plein and Jane Diamantis, a former board member. Laporte, the former CEO of the D.C.-based nonprofit consulting firm Friends of Compass, Inc., said she has high hopes for River Farm.

“I just feel like this is a place where there’s a lot of joy, and I’m excited to find ways to bring people here to experience that joy,” Laporte said.

More importantly for the broader community, the grounds are once again open to volunteers, who have sprung into action. Under the guidance of Tammy Burke, AHS’ new horticulturalist, volunteers are working to restore the grounds after they had been untended for the duration of the pandemic. New board member Plein also made a donation and hired landscapers to assist with the cleanup.

The once fallow land is looking beautiful once again, just in time for spring.

“It looks better than it’s ever looked,” Anne Fafara, a River Farm volunteer, said.

Katherine Ward, president of the Wellington Civic Association, welcomes AHS’ recent reversal after the turbulent prior year.

“As we understand it in the few conversations we’ve had with folks, [the board] is very diligently improving upon the mess that had been made by the previous board, and they are doing it very slowly and appropriately,” Ward said.

Weddings are once again being held at River Farm, along with community events such as the AHS Spring Garden Sale, which returns on April 8 and 9.

“My community will be having their Easter egg hunt on the property, which they’ve done for years and years and years,” Ward said. “We’re very excited about that. We like our relationship with River Farm.”

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

According to Laura Dowling, one of the five members of AHS’ board who opposed the sale, the board is refocusing its philosophy to ensure River Farm is at the center of its work as a nonprofit.

“We’ve revised the bylaws to strengthen board operations and we’re now looking at the mission and vision statement so that River Farm can be fully integrated into our overall horticultural mission,” Dowling said. “We’re addressing internal governance issues as a board, and meanwhile, we’re also generating exciting momentum at River Farm.”

AHS recently reconstituted its River Farm committee, which will be headed by Plein and oversee restoration of the property’s buildings, grounds and gardens. Plein has started an assessment of the property and is also reaching out to the community to kickstart a conversation that will inform the board’s work moving forward.

Dowling said the board is already considering work on the meadow that stretches below the manor and is adjacent to the Potomac. The meadow, like the rest of the property, needs some TLC, and Plein is looking at ways to transform it into a wildflower meadow, Dowling said.

Community members, though relieved River Farm is off the real estate market, would like assurances that the property would be protected from the potential whims of a future board.

Alan Rowsome, executive director of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, said concrete protective measures need to be put in place to keep the property open to the public. NVCT headed the Save River Farm campaign and worked with AHS and NOVA Parks, the regional park authority that made several offers to buy River Farm.

According to Rowsome, NVCT is still engaged in conversations with the AHS board about a potential conservation easement, which is a legal, written agreement that permanently limits how a piece of land can be used. Rowsome said there is actually already a conservation easement on part of the property.

Rowsome argued a conservation easement is still necessary, in part because a multi-acre property adjacent to River Farm was recently sold to Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

“That, to me, is just emblematic of how important it is to get this property protected now when we can because you just don’t know what the future might hold,” Rowsome said. “To us, it really makes that formal, and I don’t see a way you could do that without the easement.”

There are financial benefits to establishing a conservation easement, which typically lowers the value of the property and, in turn, lowers tax on the property for the owner, Rowsome said.

Virginia State Sen. Scott Surovell, who represents District 36 in which River Farm falls, echoed Rowsome’s support for a conservation easement on the property. Surovell, who was married at River Farm, said about $2 million for improvements to the property remains set aside in Virginia’s proposed budget.

“I’m still crossing my fingers that survives the budget conference and the governor, but that’s also still outstanding,” Surovell said.

Community members like Fafara and Ward have also pitched the concept of a foundation or endowment that would specifically fund River Farm itself rather than AHS’ national efforts.

“I think the mission of AHS and the mission of saving the property are very different,” Fafara said. “… They were handed River Farm – it was a gift – but I think they need a separate entity to take care of it or make sure that it’s protected.”

The AHS board is still investigating “what will be the best long-term solution for the property,” according to Dowling, but she confirmed conservation easements and endowments have been part of the conversation.

“Creating an endowment is another idea that is definitely on the table. Securing sufficient financial support for both AHS national horticultural programming and for the renovation and maintenance of River Farm is one of our key priorities,” Dowling said.

“Whether it’s a conservation easement or it’s an endowment or something else, we just want to make sure we know what the options are and that we choose the best option to protect the space and make sure it stays as lovely and available to everybody,” Laporte said.

As AHS moves forward and attempts to make good on its promises about the future of River Farm, spring takes on additional symbolic weight for the organization. If spring is a time for regrowth in River Farm’s gardens, it is also a chance for AHS and the community to start fresh with an eye toward the horizon.

“I don’t know if [River Farm] would have become a casino or a retirement community, but none of the options were good ones – certainly not for the community and especially for AHS. Based on where we were at a year ago or even just a few months ago, I believe we’ve made incredible progress,” Dowling said.