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Votes

The Deal Is Done

Supervisors vote 8-1 in favor of sending Lorton Prison site nomination to National Registry of Historic Places.

Head in hand, Supervisor Gerald "Gerry" Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) looked as if the weight of 532 acres rested solely on his shoulders.

After nearly an hour of testimony and pleas from residents, historians, civic leaders and others who spoke from the heart, it was time to put a motion on the table for consideration by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

"No matter what I do, I know I can't make everyone happy," said Hyland. "Everyone's going to feel a little bit unhappy."

Taking a deep breath, he carefully worded a motion for the Board of Supervisors to send a nomination including the Occoquan Workhouse portion of the former Lorton prison site to the National Registry of Historic Places as the first of two phases of a nomination that would, eventually, include the majority of a 532-acre submission that has been the subject of debate for as long as two years.

Chairman Gerald "Gerry" Connolly (D-At-large) asked for a second to the motion. None came.

"We have people here who have lived in the area for years and years, who had a vision of what they wanted to see happen in Lorton after the prison closed," said Hyland, a few minutes later. "We have a new community that came in across the street from the prison because of the vision of the people who had been there before."

For the past two years, two groups of Lorton area residents have been debating how best to preserve the former prison site. The first group argued for the site to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places, to preserve the history of the prison and use any tax credits or grants available for historic districts for adaptive reuse or restoration. While the second group wanted to see the area reused, its members wished to wait for proposals from developers to find out if the historic distinction would help or hinder the progress.

If the Board of Supervisors voted to send the nomination to the National Registry, the state Historic Registry Board would discuss the issue at its quarterly meeting in December, before the Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from developers could be received and analyzed. If the board voted to defer the nomination, the earliest it could be presented to the state board would be March, its first meeting of 2006.

On Monday night, Hyland had to put himself in the middle of those two groups and try to find common ground.

The resolution came when a motion was made by Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) for the board to approve the county staff's recommendation to send the original nomination, including 532 acres of the former prison grounds and over 190 structures, to the National Registry of Historic Places for consideration of inclusion on the registry and the formation of a historic district that would include, among other things, the penitentiary, reformatory and a second workhouse quadrangle.

Her motion was quickly seconded and a vote was taken: Eight of nine supervisors, save Hyland, voted to pass the nomination.

"We talk about how when we want to save a house, we need to get the surrounding area preserved as well because it's as much a part of history as the structure itself," said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence). "This is the same thing. This is a large site with a lot of history, and all of it is connected."

Connolly did urge his fellow boardmembers to remember the contributions Hyland made in fighting for both the initial purchase of the Lorton site and in trying do what was right for the community. "No one fought longer and harder to save the Lorton site than Gerry Hyland," he said. "When the board made the decision to purchase the site, we promised the public we'd preserve the balance of the property in perpetuity to open space. This is not a board at all eager to knock down much of its history. We are keeping the faith with the public whose tax dollars we used to purchase the property and preserve it."

SIXTEEN RESIDENTS had signed up to speak during the public hearing portion of the Board of Supervisors meeting, roughly split down the middle in favor of passing along the nomination as it stood and those who wanted it deferred until requests for proposals (RFPs) that have only recently been sent out to developers could be returned. Once the RFPs come back with suggestions for how to redevelop the former prison site, residents reasoned, the board would have a better idea how a historic distinction could help secure grants and tax credits to be used in developing the area.

Those who opposed the nomination's submission to the National Registry referred to the prison as little more than "a number of cages to restrain criminals so violent they were not allowed to mix with other inmates," said Tom Moore, a Fairfax Station resident.

Some residents who spoke were concerned that a historic district would eliminate the site's eligibility for certain grants or make the area unattractive to developers.

"We approved of the preservation in concept, but we do not support the idea of the National Historic Registry," said Tim Sargeant, chairman of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens' Oversight Committee and a member of the initial citizen task force that helped create the redevelopment plan. "The RFPs should precede the National Historic Registry process. The Memorandum of Agreement identified a specific number of objects as contributing to the historic significance of the site, but more structures have been added since it was drawn up."

Those in favor of passing the nomination made connections to the cultural impact of places like Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay that have been transformed into assets for the communities in which they reside.

Lisa Randolph spoke of a mine her parents worked to save after it had closed, telling the board how it had become the site of a community festival and a field trip destination for schools. "This could foster a spirit of learning and community," she said. "I believe in learning about history by experiencing it."

Supervisors asked Marc Wagner, a national historic manager with the Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, several questions about the impact the nomination would have on the possibility of tearing down or renovating structures at the prison site.

"Your Architectural Review Board is in the driver's seat," said Wagner. "They have the final say over what happens to the buildings. The distinction is honorary, it does not preclude tearing down buildings."

If too many buildings are torn down, he said, the history the distinction is supposed to protect would become meaningless and the site could be de-listed.

AFTER THE MEETING, representatives from both sides of the issue resumed friendly conversation, exchanging promises to work together and assurances that they all wanted the same thing in the end: Finding and committing to the best use of the land for the community.

"I'm disappointed the board didn't listen to the new information brought forward and the questions that remain unanswered," said Peter Dickinson, president of the Laurel Hill Community Association. "This was not a question of not wanting to look at prison walls, this was a question of whether preservation will help the opportunities to use the buildings for their best use."

Members of the larger South County Federation, an association consisting of civic organizations throughout the Lorton area, will "continue to work with the county to make the adaptive reuse plan a success," said Dickinson. "Our concern is that this would make it more difficult."

As chair of the Fairfax County Historical Commission, Lynne Garvey Wark said she was "delighted" that the board had voted to protect "a very important piece of historic property. We admire the integrity of the board very much," she said.

Once the initial "angst" settles, "we'll go on," said Neal McBride, a member of the Lorton Heritage Society. "This is the best decision the Board of Supervisors has made in a long time. My community has been waiting to use the area for years and now we'll have the chance to see all our dreams come true in a sensible, responsible manner," he said.

Up next for the former Lorton prison site is a Nov. 7 public information meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center to discuss the nomination. The only way the nomination will be stopped, Wagner said, is if a majority of the owners of the property, or three of five title holders, object to the nomination. Notification of the meeting and the nomination will also be sent to residents who own property adjacent to the site, but any complaints they have will not have an impact on the nomination, Wagner said.