It’s a perfect example of a second chance.
When Fairfax County purchased the former Lorton Prison area from the federal government in 2002, no concrete plans were in place for what would happen with the more than 2,000 acres and the structures on the property.
Fairfax 4 Horses, a group focused on creating equestrian centers in Fairfax County, saw an opportunity to turn 100 acres into the county’s first place where people of all ages could go to ride horses without having to bring their own. The site would also be a place for people to take lessons and where a therapeutic riding program could have a home.
“Fairfax 4 Horses is a nonprofit organization that was initially founded in June of 2002,” said president Kevin O’Connor.
O’Connor had been trying to preserve some of the 116 acre Bachman Farm property, near Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, for open space, while some of his neighbors had been petitioning the Fairfax County Planning Commission for permission to use some of the Laurel Hill site for an equestrian center.
“There is a need for public riding and instruction facilities,” O’Connor said. Some parks, like Frying Pan and Turner Farm, have trails for horses but people need to bring their own horse, he said. Fairfax 4 Horses envisions a place where people without horses can go to ride maybe even take lessons.
What Fairfax 4 Horses would ultimately like to see, O'Connor said, is three riding facilities throughout the county: one at Laurel Hill, one at Sully Woodlands and one in the northern part of the county, perhaps at the highly desirable Salona property in McLean.
The property, currently owned by Dan DuVal, is the last remaining large tract of undeveloped land in McLean and negotiations have been ongoing for several months as to what its fate may be.
"We knew they had an interest in the property, but I don't know what might become available in the future," said Linda Lammerson, a legislative aid in Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois' office. The possibility of an equestrian center in the northern part of the county might be an attractive concept for DuBois, she said, but, "It depends on the location."
While other sites were being examined, O'Connor and Fairfax 4 Horses began talking with the Park Authority about the concept of an equestrian center.
“We talked with the Park Authority, which had done a feasibility study for a public horseback riding lesson facility, because the county does not currently have one,” O’Connor said.
THE BACHMAN FARM PROPERTY was not an option, but there was the dairy farm at the Lorton Prison site, which seemed ideal to both the equestrians and the Park Authority, he said. Another possible site would be in the Sully Woodlands site, which would allow for trails to be used for horses and residents of the single-family homes interspersed in the area, O’Connor said.
“When the feasibility study was completed, it recommended the site at Laurel Hill,” O’Connor said. “If their facility proves to be viable, the county would consider the possibility of a second facility at Sully Woodlands after the Laurel Hill site is completed.”
Architect John Blackburn has created a site plan for the 100-acre park, O’Connor said, which would include a lesson facility with room for up to 50 horses and a therapeutic riding center for up to 15 horses, which would house the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. While Blackburn donated his services to create the initial plans, it would cost between $10 and $20 million to build the facility, he said.
“We’ve got some major fundraising to do,” O’Connor said. “To build the center the way it’s designed, it’ll probably take four or five years to build.”
As for the project itself, Blackburn can foresee two barns, one measuring 120 feet by 250 feet to house the therapeutic riding program and the other measuring 100 feet by 300 feet for the horses available on hand for riding lessons and trails.
"The therapeutic riding area will have a two-stall barn attached to a riding area indoors and an outer riding ring as well. The program won't need a lot of horses, but there will be lots of room for observation, which a lot of times is important to both the rider and their parents."
The smaller barn could possibly be used for a program for at-risk children or teenagers, he said, but the main focus will be on the children who use horses as part of their physical therapy regimen.
"The larger of the two barns is designed to allow different things to be going on at the same time," Blackburn said.
There will be two long stable areas perpendicular to the barn, he said, to allow for ventilation and grooming for the horses, with a service area in the middle, which will be heated in the winter.
"That setup also allows for fire protection," he said. "There will be doors on each wing of the stable so an area can be isolated if it needs to be."
Most of the area surrounding the barns will be open fields to allow for riding lessons and trail rides, Blackburn said.
"We've designed an number of different paddocks to have some free-form fencing and make the area look more natural," he said. "We want to allow for more public access to equestrian sports."
The existing silos on the 100-acre portion of the property will be preserved both for their historical significance but also to maintain a farm-like feel for the area, he said.
"They're great structures to see," Blackburn said. "Theoretically, you could even have a small museum built on-site to talk about the history of it."
Trails will be constructed around the site, allowing for walkers and riders alike to enjoy nature.
"Some of the trails are in the park's service planning already, but I'm not sure how many miles of trails are planned," he said. "Horses need a softer surface to walk on. There's also the opportunity for internal trails and to connect with some of the pre-existing trails already in the Lorton area."
The plan for the equestrian center at Laurel Hill still needs to be approved by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, O'Connor said, and a decision is not expected until October.
"I'm 90 percent sure it'll happen. The biggest challenge is clearing the site and financing the construction," he said.
FAIRFAX 4 HORSES entered into a partnership with the Fairfax County Park Authority on July 13, which "allows the group to indicate they're doing this in cooperation with the Park Authority," said Kevin Fay, the Dranesville District representative to the county's Park Authority. "The equestrian center won't be cheap. In the bond measure for the site during the current four-year period, only $3 or $4 million was set aside for Laurel Hill overall, which won't come anywhere near being able to fund all the projects we'd like to see on the site."
Fairfax 4 Horses "should be commended for their understanding of the planning process," said Judy Pedersen, a public information officer with the Park Authority. "They've been very active with the planning and board hearing process," she said, adding that many members and supports of the equestrian center have been vocal attendants at several meetings regarding the Laurel Hill property.
"We're going to be cooperative and support their actions by helping to develop equestrian trails, facilities and programs at that location" once the site is in the construction phase, Pedersen said. "When citizens get involved on projects like this, it ratchets up the level of support for a project and legitimizes our partnerships. Their plan is a clarification of something we were working on anyway."
Once the Laurel Hill site is completed, O'Connor said the group hopes to continue looking to other locations in the county for more equestrian centers.
"We're already looking into the Sully Woodlands site and possibly a third location in the northern part of the county," he said. "We're setting it up so we'll have a triple crown of riding facilities," he said, referring to the name given to equestrian world's most prestigious competitions.
Given the rising costs of real estate and open land, O'Connor admits the challenge at hand is fundraising.
"If more large landowners knew what we were trying to do, maybe we could make some arrangements" to purchase land at lower prices or longer loans, he said.
Or the land may become another type of facility, most likely soccer fields to alleviate the demand on the county's fields.
"Kids get a lot of worth out of the soccer fields we have, but they could be getting much more out of riding lessons," he said. "It would be great to be able to drop kids off after school for riding lessons, or maybe the parents could join them."
In the meantime, Fairfax 4 Horses is dedicating all its time and fundraising efforts to the Laurel Hill location, which will be a long process in itself.
"The problem is that Lorton Road runs through the property which has to be re-engineered, and anything that touches the road is dependent on VDOT activities," said Beverly Dickerson, vice president of Fairfax 4 Horses. "There are old buildings that need to be removed and lots of changes to be done. We hope to start construction early next year, but we'll have a better feel on whether that's possible in September."
Should everything progress smoothly, Dickerson said an optimistic guess for the earliest opening date would be around 2007. "That's very optimistic," she said with a laugh. "Once Lorton Road is restored and funded, we can move forward quickly."