The history of Robey's Mill reads like a fireside romance. The widow of one of Martha Washington's sons lived there. Confederate troops sequestered themselves there. The notorious Col. John Singleton Mosby, the "Gray Ghost," was rumored to have hidden in the chimney there.
Last week, Fairfax County planning officials recommended that the five-building complex that makes up the mill be declared an historic district. The mill, in the southwest corner of the county, would be the 10th historic district in Fairfax if the proposal is approved by county supervisors.
"At one time, mills were scattered all over this county. Every other road has a 'mill' in (its name), but there are no mills . . . Robey's Mill is one of the few remaining examples (of a neighborhood plantation mill)," said county preservation planner Elizabeth David.
The mill stands along the Piney Branch in the Springfield District. The planning department's recommendation to declare it an historic district would control development in the area immediately surrounding, thus preserving the mill and its grounds.
The designation would also allow the county to control development in the largely residential area surrounding the mill. In an historic district, any construction would have to be approved first by the county architectural review board.
The basic zoning for the area would not be changed. Under that zoning, only single-family homes are allowed and they can be no taller than 35 feet. No commercial or industrial business would be allowed in the historic area, and all improvements -- signs, fences, street furniture -- would have to be compatible with the landmark structures.
"The historic zoning merely overlays present zoning," said county preservation planner David. "We're not saying 'no development;' all we're saying is do it in good taste."
The size of the district has yet to be determined and has been a source of dispute among residents in the area. Some residents are opposed to the historic district altogether, arguing it would hurt property values, while others say the district should be restricted to the 33 acres held by the present owner of the mill, David and Sally McGrath.
The county planning commission recommended last week that the district contain 40 acres, including the 33 acres owned by the McGraths. The county planning staff, however, recommended that the district include nearly 90 acres, covering more than five properties.
Officials said both recommendations may be sent to the Board of Supervisors, which is to consider the proposals Nov. 3.
Planning commission officials contended the historic designation would not affect property values and said the district needs at least 40 acres to ensure preservation of the mill.
Officials said that although the McGrath's land, off Popes Head Road, already has been included in the National Register of Historic Places, that classification protects the property from federal projects, not from county or private building.
Robey's Mill originally was part of the 1,000-acre Hope Park Plantation.
It was last used as a commercial mill for grinding grain in 1907. Five of the original buildings, including the three-story wooden mill, are still standing. Except for a water wheel, the original equipment at the mill is intact, according to planning officials.
The current owners, the McGraths, say they support the historic district. The McGraths, who bought the land in 1958, live in the millers' house, a white, two-story wood-frame home.
"We're quite willing to have the property placed in the district . . . People are constantly telling us about how they used to come here with their grandparents to grind flour," said Sally McGrath. "It's really been wonderful living here.
"We've restored a lot of the buildings -- our children played in the slave house for years and we have used the spring house for cooling watermelons and cider. We dream of restoring the mill, and maybe someday we will turn it into a museum."