Since I last wrote, many people have been asking me what Save Woodlawn Stables will be up to next. In preparation for answering that, I've been thinking over and over how our group even got to where we are at this point. How we organized and how we accomplished a small measure of change. So I thought a small recap of our history and recent events would be in order.
To recap: we started off in April with a petition on change.org, trying to bring attention to what was supposedly public knowledge, but which curiously, nobody seemed to know about: the new plans for the Route 1 Bypass were going to directly cut through Woodlawn Stables. Well, that wouldn't stand. After weeks of lobbying and phone calling, hanging flyers and pounding the pavement, we got over 5000 signatures. Then came the public meeting with Federal Highways where we had over 500 people show up.
Except, FHWA doesn't exactly know how many came. All the sign in sheets were full, and not all the kids got counted. For the record, they've said over 500. In full disclosure, I am a planner with local government. I have never before been to such an amazingly, hugely attended meeting. Our meetings are more like what you see on an episode of Parks and Recreation. The same 12 folks show up, and a few wildcards, some who want to yell at you for something entirely unrelated to the meeting. 50 is a large meeting, 100 is super large. Anything over that you think you're in the wrong room and these people must be there because of a rumor about free pizza. Either that or they got mixed up with a School Board busing or redistricting meeting taking place down the hall.
Point being: that June meeting blew the roof off.
Not that everyone was there for the stables, though most were. Hundreds of people came out to participate and learn about, and make their voices heard on a road project that will change this area forever. After that meeting, the politicians weighed in with their preferred alternatives for the road (all supported a widen in place option, most with some caveats), and all the players got back to work on what is called the Programatic Agreement and the Environmental Assessment.
Now did this huge public outpouring affect much? Did the designers and politicians go back to the process, look more closely, and try to come up with a better option? One that would meet the terms of the funding while also meeting the transportation demands, and the concerns voiced by all these hundreds of folks that the historic district and the stables be better preserved?
Well, I'm sorry to say, not really. And that's hard to believe, and not so hard to believe. This train had already left the station. As is the case with so many road projects (and I'm not faulting anyone here, really, it's just the way it is set up) the parameters are set from the top, and then 'applied'. It almost never starts from the bottom up, looking at all the factors of a site. That's what messy community planners do. Not road engineers; you can't build a road like you design a master plan. (Seriously, you might never get there.) Instead, you look at the transportation needs, apply for the funding, and then try to deal with the historical, cultural and other "soft" parameters later on. They are simply not well factored in at the beginning stages of building a road.
So, where did that leave us, and the politicians, and all the planners working on this project? Without a lot of options.
After the public outcry, what was Fairfax County's next move? On September 11th, the Board of Supervisors voted to support the road alignment for Route 1 that included a bypass. Pretty much the same Bypass that people came out in droves against. And remember, not just barn supporters came out against the Bypass. The Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, the Mount Vernon Civic Assocation, Ft. Belvoir commuters, neighboring residents also said no (neigh!) to the Bypass.
I have to add, that these folks supporting the widen in place option did not want the cemetery torn out either. It was always a false choice to say it had to be Barns or Cemetery, Barns or National Historic Landmark. No, the point of supporting widen in place was to get the road put back into its original alignment, and then work to make it smaller. Make it better. Make it a road that would meet the transportation needs of the region while at the same time designing it to best protect all the historic resources in the district, while also preserving Woodlawn Stables.
Sound like a tall order? It was, but not beyond our abilities. Nevertheless, a choice was made that the project needed to move forward. The road would be tweaked, by going back to the drawings board was not an option.
Now back to that Board of Supervisors vote. It was taken up as an Action Item. Meaning no public hearing, and no testimony allowed. And to boot, when the draft agenda was posted (link here) the item was not noted at all. The Friday before the Tuesday vote, it was posted. And not surprisingly, nobody knew about it. Was that fair to the process? Was that a fair way to treat all the hundreds who came out to the public meeting in June? To schedule a vote endorsing a project in a way and at a time that people couldn't come out and voice their opinion about it to their elected officials, even if they had tried?
In my humble opinion, I thought it was a weak way to go about the vote. Give people their say, let them come out and see you take the vote, and give them the respect of allowing them to participate in the decision making.
This is a project that will have decades long ramifications for our area, and the only opportunity people had to voice an opinion was at a summer meeting sponsored by the Feds. Not cool, not respectful, not the way to treat your citizens who worked hard on this issue.
Well, what is the good news of all this, since you wouldn't know there is any from the papers or the rumors? The good news is that in this Action Item vote, the Board endorsed a plan that will construct a new barn and indoor ring on the far eastern edge of the property. This will take the place of the ones being demolished by the road. (link to staff report and page here). The new barn plan is shown on Page 148.
This is good news, at least for the stables supporters. The new barns in this location were not in the original FHWA plans. This will allow for the continued operation of Woodlawn Stables, to the end of the 2016 lease, and hopefully beyond. Construction on the barns would start next summer, the horses and facility would move in, and then work would start demolishing the old barns and grading for the road.
Is this the best outcome? I believe that for the historic district, for the business, for the land, and even for the National Trust, that no, this is not the best outcome. It still confounds me how the toughest preservation laws in the country, the highest level organizations being involved, and the tremendous public outpouring changed so little of the eventual outcome in terms of the actual road.
But there is always a silver lining, and the good news in this case is that we got an outcome that can allow the stables to continue to operate. That would not have been possible without every signature on the petition, every phonecall made and every letter sent. Everybody that showed up at the public meeting made a difference.
Some people have asked me why it was worth the effort at all, if we lost to the road. My answer is that you need to show up, you need to show that you care and that you are engaged and that you want to be involved in the process. Even if you lose, or even if you only gain some of what you wanted. The alternative is passivity, to allow others to make decisions for us and our community. To let people who think they know the needs of the area make decisions that they don't have to live with, but the rest of us do. And the community came together to show that this property matters, that this special place is worth fighting for. Always show up, always participate, always believe that your efforts matter. We got a new barn where before there was nothing. That is a victory I will be proud of, and when construction is finished, and we can all still see the horses grazing peacefully beside commuting hell, I hope you will be proud of it too.
To see more of what we are up to, and how you can still help Woodlawn Stables, you can go to our website at www.savewoodlawnstables.org