Opinion: Commentary: Working to Save River Farm

Opinion: Commentary: Working to Save River Farm

As you may have heard around the community, and in this newspaper last week, the American Horticultural Society (AHS) has announced that it is putting its headquarters, historic River Farm, the 27-acre property which represents the northernmost of George Washington’s five farms, up for sale on the open real estate market. Since this announcement became public we, the State Delegate and State Senator who represent the community surrounding it, have heard from many worried constituents. We have heard from constituents with concerns about losing this beautiful and historic property, on the bank of the Potomac River, to development during our recent tele-town halls, via email, Twitter, Facebook messages, phone calls, and petitions. River Farm has operated as a public space and events venue for our community for decades, and we are dedicated to ensuring that this invaluable resource remains open for public enjoyment.

The American Horticultural Society first acquired the River Farm property in the early 1970s when Enid Annenburg Haupt, an AHS board member, donated the necessary funds. This acquisition followed an attempt by the Soviet Embassy to buy the property as a retreat during the Cold War. Since then, generations of Mount Vernon residents and visitors alike have had the opportunity to experience the splendor of the estate and its beautiful gardens, including the immense Osage orange tree, perhaps the largest specimen in the United States and a gift to George Washington from Thomas Jefferson. Also on the property are the White House gates, first installed at the White House in 1819, during the reconstruction of the structure after it burned during the War of 1812, and used for more than 120 years at the Executive Mansion’s northeast entrance.

We are working with Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck, and Senator Scott Surovell, along with representatives from Congressman Beyer, Senator Kaine, and Senator Warner’s offices, as well as our three major park entities: the National Park Service (NPS), the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, and the Fairfax County Park Authority, to come up with a plan to preserve this important cultural landmark.

We heard from the American Horticultural Society after their board meeting last week. The AHS board reaffirmed their desire to sell the property, ideally in the next six months or so. However, their leadership expressed their willingness to discuss placing the property into public ownership so that River Farm can remain accessible to the public for generations to come. After writing to AHS interim Executive Director Bob Brackman on this matter, we were heartened to receive a response stating “there is probably not a better way [to fulfill our mission] than to have a buyer who wants to keep River Farm available for the public's use.” A price has not yet been set for the River Farm property, but given that the property was valued at nearly $17 million in 2019, we will need to obtain substantial funds to acquire the property for the public, and hopefully under the stewardship of a park authority.

We have joined a smaller fundraising group that will focus our energy on raising the necessary funds to purchase River Farm. We have many avenues to try to obtain this funding, including applying for grants, soliciting funds from conservation organizations and private donations, as well as from government sources. While we have many leads this will be an arduous endeavor and we welcome ideas from the community.

Over 800 community members have already signed our petition to preserve River Farm. Please sign our petition to ensure that the buyer of River Farm will preserve this natural refuge as open space available for public use.

It is our continued honor to represent Mount Vernon residents in the Virginia General Assembly.