A controversy has erupted between the Central United Methodist Church (CUMC) in Ballston and Arlington County historic preservationists over a proposal to transform the church property into a new worship space.
The church is located at 4201 Fairfax Drive. According to Pastor Sarah Harrison-McQueen, the plans would include expanded childcare for Kinhaven School located in the church from the present 68 slots to 120-150, new kitchen facilities to support the feeding ministry with A-SPAN homeless clients and also provide much needed affordable housing across from the Ballston Metro stop.
The question revolves around whether the historic Ball Family Cemetery located on church property should be declared an Arlington Historical District which would necessitate modification of church plans or whether any potential Ball family remains along with the markers should be removed to a separate location. This would allow for expansion of the United Methodist Church facilities.
"In 1920 members of the Ball family lifted restrictions from the 1906 deed so that the mission of the church could expand and we built our current sanctuary,” Harrison-McQueen said. “Mary E. Hyatt and Clara E Ball granted us use of this land 'free of restrictions and requirements or obligations of whatsoeverkind.' A court order granted CUMC the authority to relocate graves in order to construct our current sanctuary and fellowship hall. We do know that the historical integrity of the original Ball burial ground was lost in the 1920s. “Neither the county or the church have any records to indicate conclusively whether any remains are on the property."
She said that Ball family members remained supporters of the congregation for years following this expansion, and “we have honored them in a church window."
Rebeccah Ballo, an Arlington County historic preservation planner, says while the Ball family ceded the rights to stop future burials on the site of the Ball cemetery and to have the land used by a church, they did not agree to allow the cemetery to be exhumed. She said the site fulfills four of 11 criteria necessary to be designated a Historic District and is a historic cemetery that should not be exhumed.
Tad Lunger, lawyer for CUMC, says that is not his opinion.
An online petition initiated four weeks ago by the Arlington preservationists was circulated to "Say NO to the removal of the Ball Family Cemetery in Ballston, Virginia." It indicates "The Robert Ball Family Cemetery is threatened by development, which proposes to remove the human remains and markers to an off site location." The town of Ballston was named for Robert Ball and his family. The petition continues, "In 1906, a 1/4 acre of the original 11 acres was given to the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Central United Methodist Church) for use as a church, a parsonage and such, and the church was to maintain the graves and markers accordingly." However, additional burials would not be allowed.
The petition continues, “In 1922 the road was widened but curved around the church and graveyard ..... with development closing in from all sides, the church is under pressure to allow removal of the graves as the developer wants to build to the curb." The petition indicates the cemetery could be spared by modifications in the building plans. This petition currently has 1,029 signatures.
McQueen said the Arlington Historical Society never reached out to the church directly and she first became aware of their opposition when the online petition was circulated. She indicates she contacted them but her attempts went unanswered.
The Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) held a public hearing Oct. 20 to consider a historic designation recommendation for the gravesite submitted by the Arlington County preservation planners. HALRB was created in 1976 to advise the County Board on historic preservation.
A CUMC church member in attendance said 37 people signed up to speak at the public hearing with four in opposition. This included a letter from Ball family members in Texas to be read into the record. The rest of the speakers were in favor of the church proposal. The meeting didn't adjourn until after midnight.
The designation report recommended that .325 square acres including the land where the current sanctuary is located be designated historic. The designation recommendation passed on a vote of 8 yea, 2 nay with 2 abstaining. The next step will take place on Nov. 5 when the County Board considers whether to authorize advertising which is necessary in a zoning matter. If they do, then a public hearing will follow at the December County Board meeting to consider a vote on the historic designation.
"If the choice is made to declare any of our site a Local Historic District it will severely impact the possibility of seeing our transformation complete. The mission of our church will be impeded,” Harrison-McQueen said. "The church's expansion is a way to honor the Ball family's desire to see a vibrant worshipping community on this land so that we can continue making life changing positive impact in our county."
Harrison-McQueen says for 100 years they have been "the little church on the corner," and an integral part of the Ballston community. "But the community we serve is growing and changing so it's important that we grow and change as well in order to best serve the people who worship, live and work here. We hope to create a street presence that is as open and welcoming as the church itself."
Lunger added, “We are trying to find out if there is a way to resolve the issues. The church would like to be here in the community for another 100 years.”
Bill Hess, a member of the church who served on both the planning and building committees for the church plan, says they have been working on this idea for at least four years. He says one of the challenges was to come up with an appropriate scale that would fit in with the current Ballston community. He added, “In this process there has never been any attempt to forget the important history of this area.”
A specialized archaeological investigation was conducted at two specific locations within the CUMC property in June 2016. Two test units and one test trench were excavated. The report filed by Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. of Gainesville, Va. indicated, "No evidence of graves or grave shafts was identified at the two geotechnical soil test bore locations as a result of the current investigation."
This was followed by a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey in August. The purpose of this survey, conducted by the same company, was to detect potential graves on the church property. The report indicated, "Eight GPR anomalies were assessed as potential graves. Three of these GPR anomalies were located in the parking lot area; these anomalies were assessed with a generally low potential of representing graves. Four of these GPR anomalies were detected in the apparent cemetery area; these were assessed with moderate to high probability of representing graves. One GPR anomaly assessed as a potential grave was recorded in the playground area; this anomaly was assessed with low to moderate potential for representing a grave.” The report further indicates that anomalies 4-7 "could also represent buried debris or a utility."
Both of the reports indicate "the general scope of the investigation was presented to and concurrent with by Arlington County Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board staff."
The report summary indicates "the results of this report represent the best information that can be determined from the GPR survey .... As with any remote sensing tools, the results of the GPR survey are, in part, interpretative. As with other remote sensing tools, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of this survey.”
Due to the current objections, Harrison-McQueen says they are proceeding with caution and have hired archaeologists to assist in ascertaining whether any remains are on the property. In addition, they have applied for a permit from Virginia's Department of Historic Resources for archaeological removal of the remains.
Harrison-McQueen explains the church proposal would create a new 501(c)(3) corporation, the Ballston Station Housing Corporation to purchase the "air rights" for development from CUMC and will own the residential portion of the new facility. The first step is to apply for tax credits to finance the project, which the church hopes to do next spring. These tax credits are awarded once a year. The residential apartment structure is currently expected to include 120 total apartment rental units including 48 affordable rental apartments. Estimated completion date is December 2019 assuming approval of the tax credit application.
The public comment period has been extended to Nov. 14. The comments may be addressed to the church's public agent, Boyd Sipe at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly to the Virginia Department of Historic Preservation.