Q&A: NVCT Executive Director Alan Rowsome on negotiations with AHS to purchase River Farm
You've been extremely busy garnering support from the community to protect River Farm from being sold to developers and trying to purchase it yourself along with NOVA Parks. What is the current state of the Save River Farm campaign?
What we have built together these last 6+ months is truly inspiring and remarkable. Nearly 400 donors giving their private dollars to protect this unique place; 7,000 petition signers; dozens of newspaper articles; successful public hearings and a county staff recommendation leading to a near unanimous vote of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to place a Historic Overlay District on the property; a $2 million amendment in the Virginia state budget towards the purchase of the property; and unprecedented political support from local and statewide elected officials that culminated in a press conference last week at the gates of River Farm where Attorney General Herring made clear that his office is going to ensure the integrity of this process moving forward.
It would be hard to ask for more at this stage, but our campaign is not over. Fairfax County is going to debate and consider a furthering strengthening of the Historic Overlay provisions for River Farm, and that process begins on May 25th with a community meeting that evening. (Go to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/planning-development/zoning-ordinance/amendments for the details.)
Public hearings and votes of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will follow. We need people ready to make their voices heard loud and clear at those meetings. Adding these overlay district provisions are a critical way that we can ensure River Farm is protected and open to the public for all time. We also need to continue to raise more funds. Now that AHS has, in theory, agreed to negotiate with us, every dollar we can continue to raise helps make our offer more substantial and more serious. There will never been a more important time to show that we have significant financial support.
In a statement last week, the American Horticultural Society said that they are finally ready to sit down and hold serious negotiations for the sale of River Farm. How do you feel about their statement?
I’m glad that they’ve gotten to this point, but it’s been a long time coming and we can’t take anything for granted. It’s pretty clear that AHS’ board doesn’t know what it wants at the moment and is deadlocked between multiple paths forward, and that makes it hard to assess their true intentions. We can’t be the mediator that comes in and solves their problems, and frankly, it’s hard to negotiate with someone when you don’t exactly know who’s in charge and who they speak for. It would help if AHS would agree to take down the real estate listing for the property and prove to us that River Farm is truly not on the market any longer, but it doesn’t appear that is going to happen.
I try to be optimist in all things and will assume good intentions, and I think it’s going to become apparent right away if these negotiations are serious or whether AHS announced them merely to get a respite from all the press hits and all the pressure while attempting to buy time.
NOVA Parks and NVCT have a made fair market value offer for the property and even increased our offer after our first foray was dismissed out of hand. That should show our level of seriousness, and with the entire community, political leadership, and even the Attorney General looking on, there’s no chance we’re operating in bad faith. Here’s hoping that we can have productive initial discussions, build trust, and realize the opportunity before us, but our Save River Farm campaign goes on as before until we can be assured that the negotiations will arrive at an acceptable outcome.
In their statement, AHS spoke of potential "partnerships." What did you take from that? Before, they seemed determined to sell the property to the highest bidder and move on quickly.
That’s the big question, isn’t it? Half of AHS’ board appears to want to stay at River Farm, take the property off the market and continue to base their operations there. I’m assuming, though, that they’d like to find a way to outsource the management of the grounds, gardens, house, wedding venue, etc. to someone else. In theory that would be a potential outcome I could get behind, but when only half of your board wants that result, what about the other half? How can AHS show that their board is fully committed to any outcome we negotiate if put on the table? From my perspective, a conservation easement retiring all remaining development rights on the property would be a ‘must have’ in that negotiation. At any point, in fact, a good portion of the pressure would be off of this entire endeavor if we could work together to ease the remaining unprotected acres of the property. Virginia has a very successful and lucrative tax incentive program for putting your land in conservation easement, meaning that doing so at River Farm could bring millions of dollars to AHS in a few short few months.
Some in the community believe there’s been too much water under the bridge for AHS to stay at River Farm and they must go, but it’s important to remember that they own the property and would have the prerogative to stay if they desired. In such an instance, we’d need a very clear, specific operating agreement that governs the future of the property and my focus would be on the state of the grounds, the gardens, and the natural areas. AHS has admitted that they have a $3 million backlog of maintenance projects on the site, so who pays for that? By not allowing the passionate volunteers who are so committed to the site to come through the gates, the state of the property is atrophying by the day. AHS should agree to reopen the site to the public immediately and allow the volunteers to come back, especially now that nearly all COVID restrictions are being lifted. We all know what would happen if we let our yards go for a season or two, and that’s what we could be facing at River Farm as well.
What can the Save River Farm campaign supporters do right now to ensure that River Farm remains open to the public?
Keep doing what you’ve been doing. Turn over every rock and keep making your voice heard. Now that we’re also, hopefully, beginning the process of good faith negotiations, we also need to build as much additional financial support as possible. Please consider donating to help us get us to this finish line we’ve worked so hard for! We want to continue to hear stories of what River Farm means to people. We want to celebrate the Plein Air artists who so passionately paint the beauty of this place.
Keep penning op eds; keep posting on social media and building a network of people who care about River Farm; continue to hold AHS accountable for its decisions and build networks of AHS members to make sure their supporters all across the county know what’s going on here.
Our Save River Farm committee is here to give updates and support to anyone, so please reach out. For every person that’s interested in helping, we’ve got a job for them! Success is within our grasp, but now is not the time to declare mission accomplished. There is a lot of work still to be done.