Fairfax County planning commissioners on July 14 unanimously recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve Turner Farmhouse Foundation’s special-exception request to permit a grief-and-bereavement retreat center at the historic farmhouse in Great Falls.
The 4.95-acre property at 10609 Georgetown Pike, part of Turner Farm Park, is owned by the Fairfax County Park Authority and leased to the applicant through the agency’s Resident Curator Program.
The retreat center would be operated mostly out of the existing garage structure, located south of the farmhouse. The applicant wishes to augment the garage with stairs, a deck, an elevator and bicycle rack.
The non-profit foundation seeks to provide meeting space for groups and people participating in grief- and bereavement-support programs, which would consist of daytime events during the week, with overnight retreats on some weekends.
The retreat center would be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m., and overnight weekend events operating from Friday at 3 p.m. to Sunday at 5 p.m. Overnight weekend retreats would be limited to 10 people.
The property has 30 parking spaces, or five times more than required. The foundation also wishes to maintain the current 38-foot front-yard setback for the circa-1905 house, which is 2 feet shorter than otherwise required.
The foundation’s president, Sarah Kirk, lives at the farmhouse and is its caretaker. Kirk, who moved to Northern Virginia from Blacksburg in 1981, bought a farm in Great Falls in 1998 to “raise ponies and children.” The family in 2011 started Turner Farm Events, which held horse shows to raise money for the park.
Nearly eight years ago, Kirk’s daughter committed suicide. Kirk spent the following weeks trying to grasp the situation.
“Death had never been real to me,” she said. “You know, old people died, maybe people in war, but not your child.”
Family members and friends soon founded the Becky Love Foundation to aid people who are struggling with the loss of loved ones and help them move forward, she said. The foundation, in conjunction with Comfort Zone, later held family bereavement camps.
Kirk got the notion of becoming the farmhouse’s resident curator while attending a Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) meeting. She and her family created the foundation to seek the curatorship at the property, an arrangement the Park Authority finalized in November 2018. The family then sold their previous home and used the proceeds to renovate the farmhouse, with the intention of creating a retreat center on the property.
The foundation worked with GFCA to narrow the scope of the retreat’s functions, said John McGranahan, the applicant’s attorney.
Jennifer Falcone, who chairs GFCA’s Land-Use and Zoning Committee, said the association long has supported the Resident Curator Program’s efforts to preserve historic structures, such as Turner Farmhouse.
GFCA members were wary of initial application language that described the retreat center as a medical facility, Falcone said. The association worked with the applicant to focus on the center’s original intent to provide grief-and-bereavement support to those coping with the deaths of a parent, sibling, primary care-giver, family member, spouse, child or other significant person, she said.
The applicant has committed to keeping the surrounding community apprised about happenings at the retreat center via a published event calendar. The foundation also will publish a separate calendar showing upcoming resident-curator programs at the site and update social-media accounts concerning the retreat’s use, Falcone said.
GFCA is pleased that development conditions ensure that lights at the retreat center would not interfere with the observatory facility at Turner Farm Park and that any new or replacement exterior lighting would have full light-cutoff fixtures mounted horizontally to the ground, Falcone said.
The applicant also agreed to have consultations between the program’s sponsor and a mental-health professional at least on a quarterly basis and provide a record of such consultations in an annual report to the Dranesville District supervisor and GFCA.
Tom Hixon of the Foxvale Farm Homeowners Association urged that mental-health professionals be involved in creating the retreat center’s sessions and that there be careful oversight of attendees.
Planning Commissioner Mary Cortina (Braddock District) said some development conditions seemed “overbearing” and maybe were too restrictive about who could use the retreat.
“I would read this [list of conditions] as a resident of the Great Falls area and be concerned that the community doesn’t really support mental-health-related issues,” Cortina said. “If that’s not the message, then I’m happy to hear that.”
The proposal traveled a “rocky road” because of concerns and complaints from neighbors, said Planning Commission member John Ulfelder (Dranesville District). The facility is designed to help those whose family members or other significant people have committed suicide, he said.
“As Sarah [Kirk] pointed out, when it happened to her, she was sort of at sea,” Ulfelder said. “She didn’t know where to go to find that kind of support to try to work through the issues that arise in that kind of situation.”
“I think that this is a very valuable service,” he added. “It’s not just for Great Falls. It’s not just for Fairfax County. It’s for the area.”
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