The Fairfax County Park Authority has unveiled a $1 million plan to renovate the old Grange hall in Great Falls and turn its nine-acre rustic site into a public park that would include a 1,700-square-foot addition to the meeting hall, a concert gazebo and parking for 140 cars.
Park officials say they are confident the plan for the site along Georgetown Pike near Walker Road meets the needs of this wealthy north Fairfax County suburban community but warned that the project will not be completed until close to the year 2000 because funding for most of it will have to await the next park bond referendum.
"We think we have provided . . . what the community wants within the context of good design," said Ed Nedsteil, park staff coordinator for the plan.
Several community leaders have said that the plan may be too much too late.
Under the proposal, the stately 55-year-old red-brick meeting hall would be equipped with a modern catering kitchen, an elevator, access for the handicapped, a larger ground-floor assembly room and a back stage dressing area for the auditorium theater.
Site improvements would include a new ball field with bleachers, an elaborate system of trails, a tot lot, and a gazebo for outside weddings and concerts. A paved drive and lot for 140 cars would replace the existing tiny gravel and asphalt parking area, but Nedsteil said more than half of the spaces would be grass-covered to maintain the site's country charm.
Improvements for the historic building and wooded site have been in the works for 18 months and on the back burner for several years awaiting the fate of the white clapboard bungalow next to the Grange hall that was the community's first school house and later a post office.
Two years ago the post office abandoned it, and a group of Great Falls citizens persuaded the Park Authority to buy it from the United Virginia Bank. The citizens raised $50,000 toward the purchase and now are raising money to renovate the old post office, a project they say will be completed by the end of next summer.
The county has also installed a small library on the site and the property has begun to resemble the meeting place it was back in the 1930s, when the community was an agrarian outpost and the Grange was its social hub. More than47,000 people used the Grange hall last year for private meetings and parties, park-sponsored activities and performances by the Great Falls Players, according to the park's program director Lynn Tadlock.
Estey Holey, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association, said residents have been "anxiously awaiting a glimpse of this plan, because people see it as the center of town."
But citizen association leader Joan Wehner said she thinks people may object to the number of parking spaces proposed for the rustic site. "We asked them to trim it down to 60," she said.
Some residents are upset over the timetable. "Can that be possible?" asked Great Falls resident George Summers, referring to the completion date of the year 2000. "I think amazement will be the reaction. I think most people figured maybe it would be done in the next two years." Summers also said he does not think the community envisioned such an elaborate plan.
Kay Sloan Burke, who represents the Great Falls area on the Park Authority Board, blamed the wait on the changing face of Great Falls and the vision people had for the site before the last bond referendum, when only $100,000 was allocated for it. That money will go for some initial parking and driveway improvements, Nedsteil said.
"I think people then just thought of what was needed in terms of a few structural repairs for the hall ," said Burke. " . . . Once they saw how much the Grange was being used, they changed their expectations."
Burke said she recommended board support for the current plan because it "accommodates the needs that we've heard . . . . But you never know until a public hearing if what you heard was truly representative or the work of special interest groups," she added.
A public hearing on the Grange Park plan will be held in January.