Will River Farm Be Sold?

Will River Farm Be Sold?

Supervisor Dan Storck and Jeff McKay hope to preserve the property

The future of River Farm remains uncertain.

The future of River Farm remains uncertain. Photo by Mike Salmon.

Supervisors Dan Storck and Jeff McKay hope to save River Farm through historic designation, while the American Horticultural Society continues plans to sell one of America’s most famous houses, seeking a premium price.

“The proceeds from the sale of River Farm will be used to create a significant endowment which has been the missing link in our financial viability. And so, the time has come,” said Terry Hayes, Board Chair. “As we prepare to pass on the stewardship of River Farm, we share the community’s hope of finding a new owner who will work to preserve and protect this beautiful and historic property.”

The public outcry and concern was huge when the American Horticultural Society announced its plan in September, and Storck, Mount Vernon’s supervisor, said he was “shocked.”

“We believe we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve a piece of our nation and county history, but first we must collect all the information needed about the preservation process, timeline, and legal implications to ensure sound long-term decisions,” said Storck and McKay, in a joint statement.

The move could reduce what might be done with the 27-acre property.

It’s a defensive move.

“But the only real protection is for the AHS board to work with the community to preserve what’s there,” said Storck. “They have to be willing to work with us.”

A public body or park authority would not be able to pay more than the appraised value, a reported $18.2 million.

Stock and McKay directed the Department of Planning & Development Heritage Resources Staff to create an expedited Historic Overlay District for River Farm. “We further direct Heritage Resources staff to assemble and provide all this information and deliver it no later than three weeks from today’s date,” Stock said during the Board Matters portion of the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

County staff has already started this process and the deadline is feasible, according to Storck.

GEORGE WASHINGTON ACQUIRED the 27.57-acre property at 7931 East Boulevard Drive in 1760, when it was called Clifton’s Neck.

After a series of different owners and different names, the Soviet Embassy offered to buy the property in 1971 for use as a retreat for its staff. But during the Cold War, “many across the world objected to the thought of George Washington’s farm becoming the possession of the Soviet Union,” according to Storck and McKay.

“As a result, Congress and the State Department asked Mr. Matheson to withdraw the property from the market,” according to the Board Matter.

Philanthropist Enid Annenberg Haupt, a member of the American Horticulturalist Society, helped the organization purchase the property and make it the headquarters of the society under the condition that the property remain open to the public and in honor of former president George Washington, of the nation’s first great gardeners and horticulturalists.

The property was named River Farm.

“AHS has long sought to make River Farm a living representation of its principles and organizational vision of raising awareness about and fostering sustainable, earth-friendly gardening and horticultural practices. Thus, we were greatly shocked and saddened by the news on September 4, 2020 that the AHS Board of Directors intended to sell the River Farm property,” said Storck.

THE ORGANIZATION DEFENDED its decision in a letter to the editor immediately after Storck’s Board Matter, and said the majority of the AHS board called the sale “the most viable option to allow for the continuation of our national nonprofit during very difficult financial times,” said Hayes.

“Like many national, member-based nonprofits, our revenue streams are being reduced by the on-line habits of a population outside our traditional community. … With the added financial strain caused by COVID-19, we have reevaluated our priorities.”

See the letter to the editor and Storck and McKay’s Board Matter on this issue’s opinion pages.

DELEGATE PAUL KRIZEK (D-44) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-31) met last month with AHS leadership and said they 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.

“We have joined a smaller fundraising group that will focus our energy on raising the necessary funds to purchase River Farm,” Krizek and Ebbin wrote in an Oct. 1 column in this paper. “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.”