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Stable Unstable: Future of Woodlawn Stables in Doubt

Feds decision on Southern Bypass creates a sense of uncertainty.

The southern bypass option avoids exhuming the graves at Woodlawn Baptist Church, although it would force the historic Woodlawn stables to close.

The southern bypass option avoids exhuming the graves at Woodlawn Baptist Church, although it would force the historic Woodlawn stables to close. Courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration

From the top of the hillside graveyard at Woodlawn Baptist Church, Pastor Travis Hilton looks out over the cars rushing by on the highway below. For months, families at his church have been worried that about 100 of these graves might have to be exhumed to widen Richmond Highway. Now that the Federal Highway Administration has entered into a programmatic agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Travis says God has answered the prayers of his congregation.

“That's something that we can celebrate this Christmas is that we will not have to have concern about the graves at Woodlawn Baptist Cemetery,” said Hilton. “So that is a relief.”

A few miles to the northeast, however, prayers have not been answered. Sitting in her office at Woodlawn Stables, owner Cynthia Mitchell says she does not know what the future holds for her business. She says she’s confident she will carry on the business somehow — even if it means moving away from Fairfax County, which she says has become increasingly hostile to horses. For now, she says, the expectation is that Woodlawn Stables will close when its lease with the National Trust for Historic Preservation ends.

“We have spent the better part of the last 30 years building relationships within this community, and had multiple generations of students work here, ride here, show their horse here,” said Mitchell. “It's a huge loss to the community, not just the horse world.”

THE CLASH BETWEEN the National Trust and Woodlawn Stables began when U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) secured a $180 million appropriation to widen the road as a result of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission changes that have added thousands of new daily commuters to Fort Belvior. Part of the agreement struck last week includes money for the National Trust to construct a new horse barn — if the organization can find an operator for it.

“This agreement is great news for the commuters along the already crowded Route 1 corridor,” said Moran in a written statement. “This is a good outcome following a thorough process — everyone with something at stake was able to arrive at a compromise.”

An attorney for the National Trust acknowledged the agreement included money for the organization to build a horse barn, but he was quick to add that that didn’t mean the organization would do so. Some of the details about how the project will work have yet to be ironed out, and the National Trust has a number of properties it needs to protect. In addition to the historic plantation house known as Woodlawn, the National Trust also owns a house not open to the public known as Grand View as well as a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved to the property during the construction of Interstate 66. Leaders at the National Trust say threading that needle has been a difficult task.

“We are not in favor of the road. However, we know that it's going to go in,” said Ross Bradford, an attorney who represents the National Trust. “And in order to be good neighbors, we supported an alignment that would minimize impact to the national historic landmark, which is our primary focus at Woodlawn.”

FOR SUPPORTERS of Woodlawn Stables, the idea that horses would not be a part of the community has been a worrisome development. That’s why a group formed and began calling itself Save Woodlawn Stables, whose founders took part in the negotiations leading to the programmatic agreement. They say the language in the agreement about the Federal Highway Administration contributing money to the National Trust for a horse barn is a “placeholder” — essentially keeping the idea alive whether the operator is Woodlawn Stables or another investor.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a number of potential investors come forward when the lease runs out,” said Shelly Kazel, co-founder of Save Woodlawn Stables. “We hope the trust will see this is what the community wants on the property.”

The agreement sets out a plan that would demolish the existing barn to make way for a new commuter bypass. It would be replaced with a new barn, which would be located on the far end of the property near where an outdoor arena is currently located.

“Like most residents and supporters of Save Woodlawn Stables, we are devastated with the decision to choose a road design that forever changes the landscape of Woodlawn Plantation and the home of one of the area’s most popular and cherished equestrian facilities: Woodlawn Stables,” said Castle in a written statement. “SWS has no doubt that the entire Woodlawn property would be a promising multi-use property where a riding facility can successfully co-exist and greatly contribute to the sustainable future of Woodlawn Plantation and the needs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”