Talks Move Forward for Purchase of River Farm by NOVA Parks

Update Monday, May 17, 4 p.m. — 

Negotiations are moving forward for the sale of River Farm to NOVA Parks, according to NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert, who spoke Monday with an AHS attorney about the sale.

“The decision of the AHS Board was to move forward with an active negotiation around both the sale of River Farm and partnership opportunities for the future,” he said in an email to reporters.

“If that does not sound very detailed, that is because it is not,” he noted. “I would anticipate that there will likely be several discussions in the coming weeks as we explore with AHS how best to buy River Farm and have the level of involvement that AHS would like. This seems like a positive development.”

Update Saturday, May 15, 9:25 a.m. — 

The American Horticultural Society released the following statement Saturday morning: 

During a meeting of The American Horticultural Society (AHS) Board on Friday, a majority of the nonprofit’s 10-member board voted to move forward with negotiations with NOVA Parks regarding their interest in River Farm, including possible partnership opportunities. NOVA Parks was promptly notified of the Board’s decision.

NOVA Parks submitted a second offer last month after the AHS Board determined an initial offer submitted in January did not meet AHS’s needs.

(l-r) (Unidentified woman), Attorney General Mark Herring, Supervisor Dan Storck, state Sen. Scott Surovell, Del. Paul Krizek, (unidentified man): Photo credit Rachel Kiser

Original article posted Wednesday, May 12 at 4:45 p.m.:

Standing in front of River Farm Wednesday, local and state officials aired their concerns at a news conference about the sale of River Farm by the American Horticultural Society, which makes its headquarters there.

In the fall of 2020, River Farm was put on the market by the board of AHS, citing financial difficulties. The decision was immediately opposed by community members, conservation leaders and state officials, who said AHS does not have the legal grounds to sell River Farm as it was a charitable asset given to AHS and violates the donor’s terms to keep it accessible to the public.

AHS initially listed the property for $32.9 million with a “tax value around $17 million,” said Alan Rowsome, executive director of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. He recounted that NOVA Parks and his organization got involved in September, making an offer for the 25-acre property along the Potomac River last winter. Following their bid, AHS then “opened it up to others to make offers” without responding to their offer, he said. Rowsome said they decided to increase their offer to a value between $14 million to $16 million, which “was a fair and generous offer.” 

“It’s an opportunity for Fairfax County, for NOVA Parks and Northern Virginia Conservation Trust to run this property well and to take away the financial burden that AHS says it is financially saddling,” he noted Wednesday.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck opened the press conference by openly opposing the sale of River Farm, and saying he appreciated how it has brought elected officials together to “preserve and protect River Farm.” Storck said an investigation is underway about the proposed sale and the county is in the process of putting together a public hearing slated for June.

“The AHS board is working diligently to create a win-win-win solution that benefits AHS, neighbors and Fairfax County…we will work in good faith with the board to protect property…but also address the concerns about the financial needs of the facility,” explained Storck. “Hope is not enough, and we need their commitment to make sure this gets protected for the long term.” 

Storck also released a statement from Congressman Don Beyer, who commended state and local leaders for their continued leadership on this issue. “…it saddens me that AHS has decided to sell this cherished property…River Farm should remain a single-use property with continued public access,” Beyer said in his statement. 

Fairfax County Chairman Jeff McKay also released a statement, saying that “the protection of River Farm has received an outpouring of support from the community…we have done everything in our authority to ensure this and to back the state in their efforts…we need the AHS to step up.”

State Attorney General Mark Herring cited areas like River Farm as a “centerpiece in communities.” Herring talked about “when Enid Annenberg donated $1 million to AHS to buy the property, it was her condition that it be maintained as a center for horticulture excellence and that it would be open to the public.“

“As attorney general, I have the authority to ensure that charitable assets and gifts are used by beneficiaries in accordance with donors terms…and act in the public’s interest,” he said.

When the sale of River Farm threatened the possibility that the intentional use of the property would not be honored, Herring opened an investigation “in partnership with District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine…to ensure that the terms are being honored and protected.” 

“AHS has been cooperative…and willingness on their part to come to the table and discuss options for how this landmark should be maintained,” Herring said.

Half of the members of the AHS board oppose the selling of River Farm as it “is not only morally and ethically wrong, but is fraught with serious legal issues,” five board members noted in a recent news release. (Read a statement below from those board members below.)

When asked about criminal allegations within the investigation, Herring replied that he has not “taken any options off the table…and will take proper steps with AHS that this property continues to be used for its intended purpose.”

Next, state Sen. Scott Surovell started by expressing his gratitude for the “collaboration with state, federal, and local members that has sent a message to the AHS board that they can’t do whatever they want to this property.” 

He also cited the press release circa 1973 from Enid Annenberg Haupt’s two obituaries stating that she wanted this property open to the public. “Annenberg Trust sent a letter to the AHS warning them that any kind of disposition to this property…would be a violation to the grant agreement in which the AHS was given the million dollars to pay off a loan used by the property.” 

Suroveell addressed insinuations that this property isn’t historic or that its only service is ecological. Formerly owned by President George Washingtoon and his estate, “this property has been an asset to the Mount Vernon community..and now this board of outsiders from another state want to use it for a real estate opportunity,” he said. However, more so than the presence of a president, this property holds personal significance, being a space that has held many memories, family events, and weddings, he noted, including his own.  

Surovell addressed the statement from the chairman of AHS, expressing that it “read as if the grant agreement doesn’t exist…an illegal twilight zone,” highlights an April 15 Supreme Court of Virginia case that was similar, based on “alienation of the property and wanted to sell it,” ultimately saying that “charitable gifts are favorable creatures of the law…and the law ensures that charitable restrictions are enforced.” 

Del. Paul Krizek ended the press conference with a powerful statement from state Sen. Adam Ebbin: “We are here because we do not want to see paradise paved over.” 

… 

The following is a statement from five AHS Board Members opposing the sale of the property:

Yesterday [May 12, 2021], Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and state elected officials held a press conference to provide an update on the status of the AG investigation into AHS’s proposed sale of River Farm. They expressed unanimous support for options that will keep River Farm open to the public while preserving and protecting the property for future generations. While we applaud these efforts and appreciate the countless hours these officials (and many others) have invested in the cause of saving River Farm, we believe that any solution must also include preserving AHS. Any proposed sale that involves stripping AHS of its most valuable asset, moving the organization to some undisclosed location to dispense endowment proceeds to undisclosed recipients, is not something we can support.

We agree with the statements of Attorney General Herring and Senator Surovell that Enid Haupt made her intentions about how AHS would steward River Farm clear and that it is a Charity’s responsibility to honor those intentions. We believe AHS can and should continue to do so in the future.

Rather than pursuing a sale of River Farm, we favor exploring additional options with NOVA Parks, the NVCT, Fairfax County and others that will keep River Farm as the national headquarters of AHS and as a priceless asset for the entire community and all Americans to enjoy – but not a sale. In our view, the ideal solution is one where we continue to honor our promise to steward River Farm in accordance with the wishes of our benefactor Enid Annenberg Haupt, keeping the promises we’ve made to donors and members for the last 50 years – while ensuring that the property is protected in perpetuity.

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