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Ferry Farm oversight at issue

Removing the local level of oversight at Ferry Farm would also eliminate one of two types of public input on any projects at the Stafford County historical site, including a build-out of the first president’s boyhood home. 

The George Washington Foundation, which oversees the property on the banks of the Rappahannock River, is asking to remove a historic resource overlay district. That designation requires the local Architectural Review Board to review any plans.

Work at Ferry Farm, a National Historic Landmark, is also subject to federal reviews.

That seems redundant to some, including foundation President Bill Garner and the National Park Service, overseers of a federal easement on the property.

The Stafford Board of Supervisors recently took up the request to remove the historic district, in place since 1985, but deferred a decision until October. The site was previously rezoned as heritage interpretation, a newly created designation that has no effect on the overlay.

The county sponsored the foundation’s application, which eliminates fees levied on the foundation.

Garner has said he wants to prevent any unnecessary conflict if the opinions don’t align between the oversight groups.

But the appointed Architectural Review Board doesn’t feel that its role in the southern Stafford property is redundant.

“When you take that third element out of the equation, you’re removing the public due process from Ferry Farm,” said longtime ARB Chairman Norman Schools.

The ARB is charged with overseeing the preservation and management of Stafford’s historic districts, and holds public hearings when reviewing applications for work in those areas.

ARB decisions can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors and then to the Circuit Court.

At the state level, the Department of Historic Resources acts as a consulting party. It has no regulatory power over Ferry Farm—meaning it doesn’t have to give an OK—since the state does not hold an easement on the property, said DHR spokesman Randy Jones.

The highest level of oversight comes from the National Park Service, which manages an easement authorized by Congress in 1998 to protect the site in perpetuity as part of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, a Park Service site in Westmoreland County.


Essentially, Ferry Farm’s designation as a National Historic Landmark makes it equal in importance to being an NPS property, but instead, Ferry Farm is managed by a private organization.

“Our role is to make sure that all of these highest level of standards are applied and that there is an open public process where everyone gets to comment,” said Lucy Lawliss, superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Noel Harrison, historian and manager of the easement, said public comment is collected through an NPS website and used during the project’s review, along with comment from consulting parties, such as the city of Fredericksburg. He said Stafford County has requested to be included.

The level of review is proportional to the scale of the project, Harrison said.

“The more changes being proposed, the higher and more complex the review,” he said.

The foundation’s annual architectural digs, for example, come under less scrutiny than permanent construction projects, such as the plans to tell Washington’s story in a three-dimensional manner.

“Those we need a lot more time to think about,” Lawliss said.

The National Historic Preservation Act requires the written public comment; proposals are also assessed under the National Environmental Protection Act.


At an Aug. 13 public hearing, the Board of Supervisors questioned why Garner wanted to be rid of the ARB.

“I think the elephant in the room may be that our ARB isn’t necessarily healthy,” said Bob Thomas, the George Washington District supervisor. “We may like to admit it or not, but they have developed a perception over the past few years of kind of being obstructionist. Whether they deserve that perception or not, I’m not judging that.”

He asked for more time to work with the ARB, which has set goals to be viewed as friendly and helpful, rather than as a hindrance to be circumvented. The board voted to defer the discussion until its Oct. 1 meeting.

Since it is considered a land-use issue, Thomas said he wants to take care of it before the November election. If the board waits, the decision must wait until new supervisors are seated in 2014.

During that public hearing, foundation president Garner talked about the merits of the site until Chairwoman Susan Stimpson cut him off, saying, “There’s no one here that’s arguing at all with the wonders of Ferry Farm.”

Garner replied, “I think we have some impediments to overcome tonight, madame chair.”

Focus turned to a $2,200 shed that the foundation wanted to construct in support of summer digs.

Garner has maintained that the shed was denied and a different design was approved months later.

Thomas called that “a slight misrepresentation.”

In an email, ARB chairman Schools said the proposed shed was to be built out of vinyl, which he contends is inappropriate for a historic district. The ARB suggested using wood instead.

At the meeting earlier this month, Thomas also asked Garner if the state had to give approval for the shed. Garner, who has led the foundation since 2004, said that wasn’t necessary.

“That level of assurance is not there,” Thomas said. “I’m being assured that the same approvals are going to be done by the state above us, and you just helped make my point: It’s not true.”

Garner said that the foundation will invest millions of dollars into the landmark along the Rappahannock River, where Washington lived from the age of 6 to 22. While rich with archaeological remains, the grounds have no Washington-era buildings.

In February, the foundation unveiled four possible plans, ranging from leaving the property as-is to building an interpretive structure atop the site of the family’s home, along with a separate orientation center.

Foundation staff had said they don’t want to build a full-blown replica, but rather have an “interpretive scheme” to help visitors understand the history and times.

Also Aug. 13, the board unanimously approved a conditional-use permit that allows employees to continue living in the houses on Ferry Farm’s property. The two homes, from the 1870s and 1940s, are accessed by private driveways off State Route 3. Employees from the George Washington Foundation reside in the homes.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975