In a heated Fairfax County battle that pitted two of the area’s main passions — horses and history — against each other, it appears the horses have lost.
The fight is over how to widen Route 1 near Fort Belvoir: by paving over part of a historic plantation that was once part of George Washington’s estate, or by building a bypass through beloved horse stables.
But before the federal government could make its decision, Woodlawn Stables’ landlord announced Friday that it would not renew the stables’ lease, meaning that the business will be forced to close by 2016 regardless of where the highway is widened.
The decision is the latest bad news for the stables, which have operated in Mount Vernon under various owners for more than 40 years. It comes after a months-long debate over where to widen the traffic-clogged highway, one that also matched the stables against their landlord, the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“It’s a shame,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), who represents the area. “I don’t think this is what the community there wanted.”
“We’re blindsided,” said Shelley Castle, of the group Save Woodlawn Stables.
Woodlawn’s attorney said the business could have to shut much sooner than 2016, given that construction on Route 1 is slated to begin next year.
Plans to widen the highway in southeast Fairfax have been on the table for decades, but they took on new urgency in 2005 when the Department of Defense announced that its Base Realignment and Closure plan would add thousands of jobs to Fort Belvoir, which only worsened congestion along Route 1.
Money for the project, $180 million in federal funding, was finally secured in November, and that set off the debate over where to build in an area with lots of historical significance but little open space.
One option, to widen the road along its current path between Telegraph Road and Route 235, would have required a Baptist church to exhume and move about 100 graves.
Woodlawn Plantation, once a part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, would have had to give up an entire hillside.
The alternative, to build a bypass to the south, would pave over a large portion of the stables. Both the stables’ land and Woodlawn Plantation are owned by the National Trust, which advocates the bypass option.
Despite intense opposition from the stables’ supporters, it has become clear in recent weeks that the Federal Highway Administration will almost certainly choose the bypass, although no formal decision has been announced.
The stables’ owner, Cindy Mitchell, couldn’t be reached Friday to comment. She has said that she’s looked for a new location but hasn’t found one.
Despite efforts by the FHA to rework the bypass option to allow the stables to continue operating, David Fiske, Mitchell’s attorney, said that staying open during and after construction would be “very difficult.”
Mitchell took over the stables with her mother, who recently died, in the early 1990s. The business has about 30 employees and offers boarding and riding lessons.
Officials with the National Trust said they made the decision so early because the stables had been asking them to. Although the 55-acre parcel would be affected by a bypass, it still could be used by another tenant. The National Trust said it chose not to renew the stables’ lease because it didn’t want to commit to an option without considering others that might generate more money.
“The lease is not sustainable and extending it would not be a prudent business decision,” the National Trust’s executive vice president, David Brown, said in a statement.
“Once the effects of the highway project on Woodlawn are better understood, the National Trust will consider all options for the property, including proposals from public or private parties.”