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Lorton: Learning To Adapt

Residents question elected officials about adaptive reuse site.

Citizens of Laurel Hill and Spring Hill got a chance to speak with their elected representatives Tuesday night, July 24 about the future of Lorton’s "adaptive reuse site," once part of the Lorton Prison grounds, now open land to be developed — within certain rigorous guidelines.

Leading into the meeting at the Laurel Hill Community Center, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) recalled once being approached by a group of citizens at a time when Lorton was scantily populated and known primarily for its prison, landfill and sewage treatment plant. Together, they had formulated a plan to draw more residents to the area and begin a change. "Fifteen years later, thanks to the visionary thinking of a small group of people, you're here, and you’re in one of the most eclectic parts of the county," said Hyland. Therefore, he said, as the county considers Lorton’s future, "Your footprints and your handprints have got to be on the decisions we make."

The residents had sent a list of questions to the evening’s panelists, who had printed their answers before the meeting, and the citizens now went over the questions and answers with Hyland, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Mount Vernon), U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) and others involved in planning for the site, although Davis had to leave early to tend to congressional matters. Also present was School Board chairman and Mount Vernon representative Dan Storck.

WHILE THE reconstruction is being planned, areas of the site that are in view of Spring Hill are receiving an interim "facelift," and residents wanted an update on its progress. They learned that an engineering study was already underway to determine the integrity of a prison wall, that refurbishment of the most prominent guard tower would begin in August, while refurbishment of the guard hut would be carried out this summer, that the light poles within the prison walls are being removed and that a firm had been hired to assess the condition and usefulness of the Laurel Hill House.

Asked why the wall and tower were being kept in the first place, Hyland reminded residents that the entire site had been declared a protected historic district. However, he said structures could be torn down if their reuse were demonstrated to be unfeasible.

"Though you live here, the whole county bought the property," said Connolly, noting that many in the county feel strongly about preserving historic structures.

Five crumbling buildings owned by the development company Kettler and located in the Spring Hill development had raised serious concerns among residents. They were told that the county had little authority to interfere directly with the buildings, which are up for sale, because the proffers for the Spring Hill development do not include a deadline for them to be renovated.

"We can't instruct them as to what to do," said Davis, but he said he was on friendly terms with the company's owner and would like to arrange a meeting between residents, Kettler and its successor to the property.

Although the company may not have a deadline for renovation, said Hyland, "We’re not going to let them go on forever and ever. They're going to feel some pressure from us."

In response to a call for developers to work with the site, only two proposals had been submitted, and both had been rejected, leaving residents wondering how long the planning process would take.

Chris Caperton, the county's Laurel Hill project coordinator, said the county was now taking a different approach and soliciting the service of a master developer — a private firm that would sit down with officials and citizen planning groups and help lay out a more specific, viable proposal.

This way, said Tim Sargeant, chair of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Committee, "the county ends up with a good, detailed scenario for taking its next steps."

The county’s request for proposals from master developers will be released before September, and Caperton said he expected to have a proposed master plan within six to eight months after the firm is hired.

IN ADDITION to assisting potential developers by laying out a master plan, the county will offer financial and development incentives to the company willing to take on the challenge of retrofitting the existing structures.

Asked if the planned equestrian center and sportsplex were still part of the plan, Hyland said the Park Authority had not accepted the proposal because the authority did not consider the plan economically viable, "so it's back to the drawing board." However, he assured that both projects would be built. "It's not a matter of whether, but when," he said.

Considering the difficulty and high cost of transforming a prison into recreational grounds, residents asked about the possibility of expanding housing into the area or tearing down some of the buildings and selling portions of the property to pay for a South County Middle School.

They were told that the land was purchased under an agreement that allows the General Services Administration to object to changes in the original plan. A building cannot be torn down without extensive review and documentation, and areas not preserved or reused are to become parkland or open space.

Connolly noted that the vast tract had been purchased from the federal government for the price of $4.2 million. "That's about the best deal since the Dutch got Manhattan," he said.

"If we suddenly turn around and start making millions of dollars on something they sold us for $4 million, that's probably going to give them some heartburn," said Hyland.

Davis had noted earlier that he was still seeking federal land to sell to raise money for a middle school, looking at properties in the Lorton area or at the Army’s Engineer Proving Ground (EPG) in Springfield.

Asked if they still believed that the adaptive reuse project would happen, the panelists responded affirmatively.

"Ask me if I'm discouraged, and I'll say no," said Sargeant, noting that doing anything with the property requires a long, detailed process.

"I saw Lorton, from day number one, as a legacy," said Connolly, insisting that he wanted the project done right. He said he would vote for any money the adaptive reuse required and was willing to make some changes in the plan, but not for the sake of "short-term exigencies."

"We’re going to insist that it's done right," Hyland agreed. "What we had here before was a negative, and I don't want to end up with a negative."