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Freedom Memorial on Its Way

The Great Falls Freedom Memorial is likely to be approved, now that the design and scope have been drastically changed to reflect input from hundreds of residents, civic organizations and local government officials, according to a member of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA).

The new design, unveiled Feb. 12 at a GFCA planning and zoning committee meeting, was met with approval and appreciation from members of the association.

Featuring a berm, benches for reflection, and a handicapped-friendly walkway with 29 words of inspiration, the design incorporates ideas that have been suggested by the association and by members of the Freedom Memorial committee. GFCA had expressed displeasure at the original design and concept because it focused too heavily on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In June, the group deferred approving the plan, which approval is necessary for the group to go forward with county permitting procedures, until seeing the final plans.

On seeing the new design, members termed the changes “pleasing” and appeared more willing to go forward. David Olin said the old design was unacceptable to him because “the context of the message and the design concerned me.” Olin felt the previous proposal was too militaristic.

GFCA member John Ulfelder said, “Obviously the members were very impressed with the design. Frankly, I don’t see any difficulty going forward.”

Formal approval is expected to come on March 2 at the executive board meeting. “The decision is really made by the executive board, though a lot of them were at the planning and zoning meeting and seemed pleased with the new design,” said Ulfelder.

MICHAEL KEARNEY, vice chairman of the Freedom Memorial Committee and head of the Old Brogue Charities, under which the committee operates, said the criticisms made them work harder on the new design. Kearney said they are committed to “creating a memorial to honor those citizens of our community, past, present and future, who have given of themselves in service to the cause of freedom and liberty. This includes not only those who served in the military but also the firefighters, police and others who placed their lives in jeopardy serving their country and fellow citizens. This is a memorial to Great Falls heroes, living and deceased. This also honors those Great Falls citizens who lost their lives on the 11th of September 2001.”

It was the death of six local residents in the terrorist attacks that was the impetus for the memorial. During a vigil on the anniversary of the attacks, a memorial was suggested to honor their memory. A rough design for the memorial emerged shortly after that evening.

Dispute soon erupted in the community over whether the six killed were heroes or were victims, and how the memorial would categorize them. That debate, says Kearney, should be ended with the new design.

Gone is the original 6-foot granite monolith that created the brouhaha. “The monolith didn't really suit the surrounding area, so the rock idea started coming forward,” Kearney said. The new concept is a berm design with a 3-foot rise all around to “create an embrace in the space,” said Kearney. The circle is set approximately 65 feet off Georgetown Pike and beside the library.

There will be a handicapped-accessible trail winding behind the library to the monument. Along the path, 29 words (which have been approved by the Board of Supervisors) will be inscribed. “When you read these words, they absolutely speak to what freedom is. They give me goose bumps,” said Kearney.

The plans also include the Defense of Freedom Memorial Book, which would be stationed inside the library, facing the memorial and encased in Plexiglas so that it can be viewed from the interior and exterior of the library. The book is slated to be titled “The Great Falls Defense of Freedom Honor Roll” and is aimed at providing a historical and genealogical tool for teaching local history

There are still a few unresolved issues, but Kearney maintains, “This plan is not in concrete. We feel we are 90 percent there, but we are receptive to anyone's ideas.” The surface material to be used for the pathway is one decision that the committee is still seeking input on, as is the proposal to put five benches around the memorial.

The design also incorporates a sidewalk that runs parallel to Georgetown Pike. GFCA member Karen Washburn cautioned Kearney that “Great Falls has always been opposed to sidewalks” and that planning needed to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. The sidewalk will be 6 feet wide, so that two wheelchairs would be able to pass one another without problems, according to Kearney.

ON A MORE contentious note, the question of whether to allow lighting at the memorial raised concern. The current design calls for only anti-vandalism lighting to be used. Low-voltage lights of about 20 watts would be placed around the central stone. There would be no vertical lights or deep illumination at the site.

The use of lights at the memorial bleeds into a deeper issue being debated by the association on turning the lights out at the library overnight. “If the lights go out at the library, they will go out here,” said Kearney.

In keeping the theme of the memorial as local as possible, the committee has chosen to use as much indigenous material as possible in its creation. They have found a rock on River Bend Road with an estimated weight of 7.2 tons that will be used for the center of the memorial. The rock will protrude between 4 and 5 feet above the ground. Though the number “six” has been a recurring theme, likely in deference to the six residents killed in the terrorist attacks, Kearney said that a height of “6 feet might be too overbearing,” for this project.

Indigenous trees and native plants are also planned for the landscaping of the memorial.

Old Brogue Charities is pledging to be completely responsible for the upkeep of the memorial in perpetuity. Since Dec. 5, when the committee began fund-raising, it has raised more than $30,000 in cash and $25,000 in in-kind donations, which will be used for the physical construction. This is nearly half way to the committee’s goal, even before it begins the permitting process.

The county will continue to mow the area, which it already does because of the public library on the site. County officials have been receptive to the memorial and are even more pleased now that the new design reflects the input given by the community, according to Dranesville District supervisor’s legislative aide, Linda Lammersen.

“This project's come a very long way. It started off with the Great Falls ‘condition’ - the yes’es and the noes. This is much more pleasing than where we started,” said Washburn.

Residents were invited to attend the planning and zoning meeting to get a preview of the design. Ulfelder contends that the fact that no disgruntled residents came to view the design bodes well for its being approved. “There were some people out there who didn’t like it and didn’t like the location. But those people didn’t bother showing up at the meeting, so I guess we’ll see on March 2nd,” said Ulfelder.