Thelma’s Ice Cream, a beloved family stop for 70 years. It’s gone now, and an assisted living home is vying to take its place. (Nikki Kahn/TWP)

UPDATE, May 12: The Fairfax County Planning Commission on Wednesday night unanimously voted to recommend approval of a special exception to allow an assisted living facility on Colvin Run Road in Great Falls. Members of the “No to Brightview”group which recently launched opposition to the facility said they would take their fight to the county Board of Supervisors which has final say on whether Brightview is built.

Also, readers asked how big the land is for the facility. The commercial plot where Thelma’s once stood is 1.44 acres. The residential lot that would receive the exception is 2.12 acres. The building is proposed to be three stories high.

Finally, an alert reader noted that it is incorrect to call Brightview a ”nursing home,” which entails far more staff and direct care. It is an assisted living facility which will also house those dealing with dementia.

And the post below incorrectly stated that Joe Sartiano is not a member of the Great Falls Citizens Association. He paid five years worth of dues in 2008, though he no longer participates. Also, longtime member Wayne Foley has been a Great Falls resident for nearly 40 years, not 30 years as some nincompoop wrote below.

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ORIGINAL POST: On the hallowed ground where Thelma’s Ice Cream once stood in Great Falls, until it was suddenly demolished in 2007, a Baltimore company is proposing to build a 90-bed home for senior citizens, including those with various forms of dementia. This proposal moved smoothly and quietly through Fairfax County’s planning mechanisms, until some neighbors found out.

And now the fight is on.

On one side: the Great Falls Citizens Association, which has studied and supports the idea for the Brightview senior assisted living facility, on Colvin Run Road across from the Colvin Run School meeting house. It’s held meetings, met and worked with Brightview’s developer to design a Great Falls-friendly building and supported the project as it glided through the Fairfax government process.

Now entering the ring, as the project is nearly approved: A neighborhood group called “No to Brightview,” consisting of many Great Falls residents who aren’t members of the citizens association, who didn’t know a 90-bed nursing home was on its way, and who think that’s a lot of building and a lot of cars for a property that is zoned one-half commercial, and one-half residential.

The Fairfax planning commission is set to vote Wednesday on whether to approve Brightview’s request to allow the three-story building on the residential half of the lot. Then, the county Board of Supervisors will have final say.

But what would Thelma have thought?

Below is video of Joe Sartiano, leader of the “No to Brightview” group, and then both sides of the struggle.


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The Thelma's road sign is the only visible reminder of the beloved store now. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Great Falls likes to describe itself as a historic semi-rural community, with big lots and plenty of space between the houses. A few small commercial districts exist, and Thelma’s for many years was about the only commerce on Colvin Run Road near Walker Road. It was a classic country store and gas station since the early 1930s, and a magnet for families from around Fairfax County seeking home-made ice cream. Little Tommy Jackman ate approximately 4,000 vanilla ice cream cones there.

But time moves on. Thelma Feighery died in 2001, and her family sold the land to a Vienna partnership for $1.3 million in 2002. The new owners, Nest Estates, tried to keep the ice cream store going for several years, but that just wasn’t going to pay a $1.3 million mortgage.

In 2008, Nest got approval for an office building that was never built. And now it has hooked up with Shelter Development of Baltimore, which has built 22 Brightview assisted living homes along the East Coast.

Shelter has proposed building a 57,000-square foot facility that would use both the Thelma’s lot and the residential lot behind it, and charge its residents between $4,000 and $6,000 a month, county planning documents show. Opponents say Shelter has mentioned rents as high as $8,000 a month. If they were just using the Thelma’s commercial lot, they could do pretty much what they wanted there within certain limits, Supervisor John Foust said, including a drive-through Burger King with one of those multi-story playgrounds. Not too Great Falls-ish.

But Shelter wants to use the residential lot too, and so needs a “special exception” from the county. Shelter contacted Foust and the Great Falls Citizens Association, modified its plans, shifted its footprint away from the nearest homes, and made everyone pretty happy.

Until Joe Sartiano and Kimberley Thachuk found out.

Joe Sartiano, leading the opposition to a nursing home on the former Thelma's site. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

“The manner that this thing is unfolding is not right,” Sartiano said the other day. “I believe the Great Falls Citizens Association has deemed themselves the decision makers on whatever needs to occur on specific property in Great Falls. If you disagree, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sartiano said many residents never got a letter from Shelter notifying them of the building, and the county’s various environmental and planning approvals were already done by the time of a public hearing in March. The county’s staff recommends that Brightview be approved.

“We’re not against development,” Sartiano said. “We’re just opposed to the size and scope of Brightview, the traffic it will bring, and the fact that there are three other assisted living facilities for seniors in the area, and none of them are full.”

Wayne Foley, a construction company owner and Great Falls resident for about 30 years, was asked by the citizens association to work with Shelter. “They have addressed a lot of concerns that we had,” Foley said. ”They made all the right moves as a potential good neighbor and as good business people.”

He said Brightview needs 90 beds to work financially. “You can’t have a big restaurant with two tables. These aren’t Taj Mahal suites, they’re 15 by 18. I believe that where Brightview is headed is a good design for what they feel they have to do.”

Both Foley and Foust said that if Brightview is rejected, the next developer to come along, “who is interested in making a profit, it’s going to be built to maximum density and you have no say in what it looks like,” Foley said.

“There is definitely a tradeoff,” Foust said. “I think everyone in the community would like to see a smaller facility. But at this point, that’s not one of the options.” He acknowledged that traffic on Colvin Run Road is already not great, and will likely get worse. But the alternative is the great, uncontrollable unknown.

Andrew Teeters, a development director for Shelter, said, “There’s an incredible demand for what we do in Great Falls.” He said Shelter was working with the community “to build something we’ll all be proud of.”

On Saturday, Sartiano’s group held an educational session on one of the neighboring properties, and collected 63 signatures on petitions in less than four hours, bringing their total number of signatures to more than 200.

“I personally collected 32 signatures,” Sartiano wrote in an e-mail to Foust, “and I asked each car if they were members of the GFCA. Not one person told me they belonged.”

The Great Falls Connection had a detailed article on Brightview last month that also alerted a portion of the community to its existence.