Attorney General Mark Herring, speaking in front of River Farm on May 12, 2021.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine are investigating the sale of a historic property in Alexandria, River Farm. The property is currently the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, and has been open to the public for nearly 50 years. But the nonprofit organization has put the 27-acre parcel up for sale for $32.9 million, sparking outrage from neighbors and elected officials.
Officials say if AHS sells to a buyer that doesn't keep the land open to the public, that may run afoul of Virginia law by not adhering to the terms of a philanthropic gift.
AHS was able to acquire River Farm in 1971, thanks to a gift from philanthropist and garden enthusiast Enid Haupt.
"Ms. Haupt's intentions are clear," said State Senator Scott Surovell at a press conference outside River Farm on Wednesday. "All you have to do is look at the press coverage in 1973, when this property was protected, all you have to do is look at her two obituaries. It is clear she wanted this property open to the public, not held by some private landowner ... She wanted open to the public as a public garden, that's what her mission was all about."
Herring joined Surovell, other local officials, and residents at the press conference, and explained why he launched an investigation.
"As attorney general, I have the authority to ensure that charitable assets and gifts are used by beneficiaries in accordance with the donor's terms," Herring said.
"State law provides a lot of tools for me to make sure that the terms and conditions that are attached to gifts are honored and respected," said Herring. "We will pursue the investigation, like we do all investigations, wherever the facts lead."
Barbara Jacobs, a River Farm neighbor, holds up a sign during the press conference.
River Farm, on the bluffs above the Potomac in Fairfax County, was one of four farms in the area owned by George Washington. Though Washington never lived at River Farm, the land was in his family for nearly 100 years, from 1760 to 1859. In the early 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War, the property was nearly sold to the Soviet Embassy, for use as a retreat for Communist dignitaries.
Haupt donated $1 million to AHS to purchase the land in 1971, through the Annenberg Foundation, run by her brother Walter Annenberg.
In September, 2020, AHS announced it was considering selling the property, after suffering losses during the pandemic and struggling to stay afloat. According to 2019 tax filings, it cost $422,095 to operate River Farm, and revenue from event rentals and gift shop sales came nowhere close to covering those expenses.
On April 7, the current executive director of the Annenberg Foundation wrote a letter to the AHS board chair, urging the organization to preserve River Farm as "important green space for public use."
The letter asserts that the terms of the grant and the sale contract specify that River Farm is to be used as a national headquarters for AHS and a horticultural center open to the public. The terms, the letter says, "do not provide for any alternate use of the property, nor the right of the society to sell the property."
Herring said he is reviewing the terms associated with the property's acquisition to ensure that those terms are still being honored. The investigation is ongoing, Herring said, and declined to go into details. Herring said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is also partnering in the review, because AHS is incorporated in the District.
"The District is supportive of AG Herring's efforts to ensure that property held by a District nonprofit in Va. is maintained in accordance with donor intent and that organization's nonprofit purposes," said a spokesperson for Racine's office, in a statement. "We look forward to collaboration with AG Herring on this and other matters."
"We've not taken any options off the table," said Herring. "But of course, our preference is that AHS continue to make sure that it takes steps to make sure that this property continues to be used for the purposes for which Ms. Haupt made the gift, that it may be maintained as a place with public access for people to enjoy the horticultural assets that are here."
AHS Board Chair Terry Hayes said in a statement today that the organization was cooperating with the ongoing investigations of both attorneys general. "The board of directors conscientiously upholds its duty to the public good as well as to its national membership," Hayes said.
A coalition of local and state officials, nonprofits, and neighbors is working to keep River Farm open to the public, and raising funds to purchase it. Late last year, the group, lead by Nova Parks and the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, made an offer on the property. In early March, AHS declined the offer, and said if fell "well short" of the property's assessed value of $17 million. The group made another offer in late April, of between $14 and $16 million.
"It really provides incredible habitat," says Laura Francis, a neighbor of River Farm.
Hayes said in the statement that the board would consider the new offer soon. "The review and consideration of the second NOVA Parks/Northern Virginia Conservation Trust offer is of high importance on the agenda for the next board of directors meeting this Friday," Hayes said.
In a statement on April 28, Hayes said the organization intended to keep the property open to the public. "As we have assured the community repeatedly, we have no intention of selling River Farm to a developer; as a horticultural organization we value the natural beauty and recognize the importance of River Farm," Hayes said.
As Herring and others spoke to reporters, neighbors held up signs reading "Save River Farm." Among them was Judy Heiser, who lives nearby and teaches painting classes at River Farm.
"This property has everything, from the flowers and the gardens, to the landscape and the river and the trees and the sky. I could just go on and on — it's just gorgeous," Heiser said. "We need this land here, we love it so much."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.