Great Falls activists press for Turner Farmhouse to have county's first resident curator

Great Falls activists hope Turner Farmhouse, located at 10609 Georgetown Pike, will serve as the first pilot case for the new resident-curator program approved Nov. 18 by the Board of Supervisors. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

The Board of Supervisors on Nov. 18 unanimously approved establishment of a resident-curator program that would lease county-owned historic properties to private residents or businesses at little or no cost, provided they preserved and maintained the properties.

The General Assembly in 2011 passed legislation allowing localities to create resident-curator programs.

The supervisors’ action will allow such a program to be put in place, but many details must be finalized first, including how curators will be selected. That worried Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), who noted preparations for the program already have taken three years.

“I just don’t want expectations to be other than what the reality is,” he said. 

County Executive Edward Long told Foust that staff members in February will provide recommendations for supervisors to consider. 

Some supervisors said the program should be inexpensive for potential curators and feature minimal bureaucratic hurdles. 

“I see a big, full-blown program,” Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) said of the material presented. “We just need to get it done.”

Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) agreed, saying, “If we do all the bells and whistles, we won’t have a house [in the program] in five years.”

 Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) and Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning staff have worked with the county’s History Commission to evaluate the expenses and possible benefits of such a program. 

John Milner Associates produced a report showing how similar efforts have fared nationwide and made recommendations for implementing a program in the county. 

FCPA officials have submitted a request for $241,187 to implement the program in fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1, 2015. The program’s future administrative costs will depend on the number of properties involved. County officials earlier this year said the program must involve at least two properties to break even.

Curators would have to follow rules devised by the county executive or his designee and preserve the sites according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

The properties would have to be publicly accessible during some periods that were “consistent with the historic property’s nature and use,” the ordinance read.

County staff told supervisors county-owned historic properties would be subject to property taxes if leased to private residents. Steve Hull of the Hunter Mill Defense League said the county should consider tax relief to incentivize resident curators.

Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) urged county staff to craft the program to encourage longtime stewardship by curators, instead of rapid turnover that could leave sites vulnerable.

“If it’s a baby step that you take, make sure it’s a baby step that goes forwards, not backwards,” she said.

Historians and community activists said a resident-curator program would preserve the county’s remaining history and save taxpayers money in the future.

Such programs have been conducted successfully in other states, supporters said. Maryland’s program has preserved more than 40 historic properties and saved taxpayers in excess of $8 million, said Robert Beach of the Fairfax County History Commission.

The county has many people who would qualify to be resident curators, Beach said. Because of the urgent need to preserve some deteriorating properties, the commission recommends moving forward with several sites that would be easily maintainable, he said.

“Logic would tell you [to] look at the properties that are in the greatest disrepair and try to get them repaired before you lose them,” Beach said. “We want to make sure the first few are highly successful. It’s a balance.”

Great Falls activists campaigned to have the Turner Farmhouse, located at 10609 Georgetown Pike, serve as the program’s first pilot case. The farmhouse, purchased by FCPA in 2011, previously underwent renovation efforts that later were abandoned. 

The building’s condition has deteriorated markedly, activists said. The Park Authority recently began making some repairs, but unless that work is completed, the house will become unsalvageable, said Ralph Apton of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA).

GFCA vice president Bill Canis urged county officials to expedite the resident-curator program.

“All of these were cherished local buildings that had a lot of life in them,” Canis said. “Let’s put the life back in them and let’s do it sooner.”

Historic preservationist Dorothy O’Rourke said the process should involve community input, not just well-bankrolled volunteers and curators, and have minimal expense for taxpayers. 

“This does not need to cost a lot of money,” she said. “It needs to cost a lot of enthusiasm.”

O’Rourke quoted Herndon-area Del. Thomas Rust (R-86th): “Not every property is a Mount Vernon or a Monticello, but every historic property can be preserved when enough people care about it.”

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