United Virginia Bank officials say they will sell a one-acre parcel in the heart of Great Falls that residents want for a park unless the bank is notified by April 15 that the Fairfax County Park Authority intends to purchase it.
The property, located by the old Grange Hall in Great Falls, contains the oldest building within several miles of this wealthy Northern Fairfax County community. Many residents are concerned that a new owner might demolish the white frame cottage, part of which was built in 1889, and deprive them of what they say is one of the few distinctive landmarks in the area.
"I told community leaders that we would essentially give them until April 15 to let us know if the county is interested" in purchasing the property, said Walter J. Gander, the bank's vice president in charge of regional property management.
Located near Georgetown Pike and Walker Road--the closest thing to a "center" that this largely undefined suburb can claim--the little green-trimmed dwelling was last leased to the U.S. Postal Service, which abandoned it 18 months ago. It was the area's first schoolhouse, and in later years it served as a private residence, real estate office, library and bank.
"It's part of the folk history of the area, no question," said Michael Rierson, superintendent of the park system's division of historical preservation.
Its location today is on prime commercial land in a community that has successfully restricted business zoning to within a few hundred yards of its crossroads core. As a result, undeveloped land in that stretch has become a high-priced commodity.
Bank officials contend that, despite the parcel's lack of either county water or sewer service, it could sell on the open market for $250,000--and therein lies the problem. That amount is more than three times what county park officials say has generally been their ceiling for an acre of land.
And although Gander has hinted privately that the bank would accept a county offer of $200,000, that is still nearly $50,000 more than the county's appraisal of the land 18 months ago.
A year ago, Great Falls Citizens Association leaders pleaded with the Fairfax County Library Board to purchase the property for the mini-library that that agency has since crowded onto the other side of the Grange site. When that effort failed, the association asked the Park Authority to purchase it for the same reason, even offering to raise some of the funds and take responsibility for the old building.
But eight of the 10 members on the Park Authority Board voted against the purchase unless the old building was torn down or removed from the site.
"Their request simply comes at a time when the county's park system emphasis has shifted from acquiring sites--especially historic buildings, which have turned out to be extremely costly in terms of repairs and maintenance --to developing properties which they already have ," explained James S. Wild, Lee District representative and chairman of the Park Authority Board.
But "politics also played a role" in last year's rejection, he noted. "Only a short time before, the board was accused of being 'fiscally irresponsible' by Dranesville District Supervisor Nancy Falck," Wild said--a charge that did not endear her to the board.
Now the citizens are asking their Park Authority representative to petition the board again to purchase the property, offering again to raise up to $50,000 in the community and to form a legal entity to assume responsibility for the building.
The item has been placed on the agenda for the Park Authority's April 5 meeting.
"The whole thing is set up to flop again," said one association member who asked not to be identified.
The arrangement proposed by the citizens is not unique. According to parks director Joe Downs, similar approaches have been successfully used elsewhere in the county. The Fairfax Symphony, for example, leases an old house in Lewinsville Park in McLean, paying just for the cost of upkeep and utilities. A similar agreement provides quarters in Annandale for the Fairfax Council of the Arts.
"The most logical county agency to purchase the property is the Park Authority because it owns the eight-acre Grange park beside it," said Great Falls Citizens Association leader Don Ziegler. One side of the parcel comes within 20 feet of the old Grange Hall and takes in a section of the driveway currently used for the Grange, he explained.
Community leaders say they could use the old building as a meeting place and as a museum for collections of the Great Falls Historical Society.
"We would have to know the building was going to be saved to raise funds," said citizen leader Ziegler. "I don't think there would be much public sentiment for a parking lot."
In the middle is Falck, who maintains that she is simply a "facilitator," and that the fate of the proposal rests with her appointed Dranesville District Park Authority member Rod Brandstetter. Brandstetter says it will be difficult to muster the votes again to release even $150,000 if the requirement is that the building stay--even with two new board members voting and the citizens' offer of money.
Brandstetter rejects any implication that the composition of his citizens advisory committee (there are 13 from McLean plus three or fewer each from Herndon, Great Falls and Falls Church) has resulted in more Dranesville District dollars being channeled into McLean, his home town.
But according to Louis Cable, the Park Authority's assistant director for programs and planning, only $800,000 of the $4.8 million from Dranesville's 1977 parks bond referendum money was spent in Great Falls and all but $300,000 of the remaining $1.8 million of bond money is earmarked for projects in McLean.
"What we are talking about is another old building and the last historic site the Park Authority purchased was the Grange," argued Falck. "Frankly, I think the community wants the old post office so badly partly because some people out there have scared them into believing they could put in a McDonald's there. But the way it is zoned, it could never be a McDonald's."
Part of the problem is that the wide open spaces in Great Falls traditionally have meant that the people there have asked for and received very little in the way of developed parks in the past, explained Estelle Holley, former Park Authority chairman from Great Falls.
"But we want this property. I don't see how the county can be missing our message," said longtime Great Falls resident Jack Bird.
"I would say that the citizens will have to come up with a convincing use and then market it to the board ," said Wild. "But the number one person they are going to have to convince is Nancy Falck."