George Washington’s Mount Vernon Is Facing a Grave Threat

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George Washington’s Mount Vernon Is Facing a Grave Threat

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Is Facing a Grave Threat
Jun 29, 2018

Mount Vernon, the home of the nation’s first president and its most visited historic residence, now faces a grave threat—one that would mar a vista that has remained largely unspoiled for more than two centuries. Dominion Energy is aggressively moving forward with plans to build a natural gas compressor station, with emission stacks that would interrupt the skyline, directly across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, a unique and irreplaceable cultural resource whose viewshed inspired George Washington and more than 90 million guests who have visited the site. The compressor station would be located within a Rural Conservation Zone adjacent to Piscataway National Park, adversely affecting significant cultural landscapes on both sides of the river.

HISTORY

Situated on a hill overlooking the Potomac River approximately fifteen miles south of Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon was the home of the first U.S. President, George Washington, who moved there in 1754, joined by his new bride, Martha, five years later. The land had been owned by Washington’s family since 1674, and after officially taking ownership in 1761, he became actively involved in designing and maintaining the estate, adding several parcels that would eventually total some 8,000 acres of fields and woodlands. In 1785, with Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening (1728) in hand, Washington set about reconfiguring the site, replacing walls, roads, and geometric gardens with a more naturalistic landscape, which today looks much as he planned it.    

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Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, VA - Photo courtesy Mount Vernon, 2014

The estate’s Georgian-style mansion lies at the end of an expansive central lawn known as the Bowling Green, which is symmetrically bordered by serpentine avenues, mature shade trees, and an upper and lower garden. The upper garden is a formal pleasure garden with six planting beds separated by wide gravel and clay pathways and planted with rows of vegetables and fruit trees at the center, bordered by boxwood hedges, ornamental trees, and flowering plants. A greenhouse to cultivate tropical plants is a focal point of the upper garden, while a kitchen garden (known as the lower garden) southwest of the Bowling Green was more utilitarian in purpose, planted with fruits and vegetables for household consumption. A fruit garden is located adjacent to the lower garden and features apple, pear, cherry, peach, and apricot trees, as well as a nursery for various plants, including grasses, vegetables, and ornamentals. Washington also maintained a small botanical garden where he experimented with new plant varieties.

The estate’s eastern prospect is Washington’s beloved Potomac River and the pristine woodlands and wetlands just beyond the Maryland shoreline, most of which is protected by scenic easements. George and Martha Washington, along with other members of their family, are buried in a tomb just south of the mansion. A memorial commemorating the enslaved people who lived and worked on the estate was completed in 1983. Mount Vernon was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), a private non-profit organization that has never accepted government funding, owns and maintains Mount Vernon today and is governed by a Board of Regents comprised solely of women. Founded by Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1853, the MVLA is the oldest historic preservation organization in the United States. Cunningham was inspired by her mother, who wrote to her after seeing Mount Vernon from a steam ship: "I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?" After raising $200,000 in donations from people across the country, the MVLA purchased the mansion and surrounding acreage in 1858 from John A. Washington III, the great-grandnephew of George Washington.

THREAT

Dominion Energy, a Virginia-based power company that is the largest corporate political spender in the state, is moving forward with plans to build a natural-gas compressor station in Charles County, Maryland, just three miles east of Mount Vernon. The Eastern Market Access Project is said to be necessary to meet increased demand from Washington Gas Light Company and Mattawoman Energy. The compressor station, with its twin emission stacks, would pump natural gas through the Cove Point Pipeline, nearly 90 miles in length.

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Rendering of the proposed twin emission stacks as seen from Mount Vernon - Courtesy Mount Vernon, 2018

A key issue in the plan for the compressor station is the height of the emission stacks, which representatives of Dominion Energy claim would not be visible from across the river at Mount Vernon. But the proposed height of the stacks has varied in planning documents, from 50 to over 100 feet—an inconsistency that is worrisome to say the least and inspires little confidence in information provided by Dominion Energy.

The view of the stacks is not the only concern. The compressor station is slated to be built directly adjacent to Piscataway Park, which boasts trails, meadows, natural woodlands, and tidal wetlands that are home to bald eagles, osprey, and a host of other species. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the park “preserves the approximate character of the landscape as seen from Washington's estate, thereby safeguarding a vital and historic aspect of the environment of one of America's greatest shrines.”

Another concern stems from the fact that the isolated compressor station, reached only by narrow, unpaved roads, would not be easily serviced by emergency-response crews. Fires in the area have already proved difficult to manage, and the threat of an explosion and a ready supply of burning gas in the heavily treed landscape is cause for alarm. These issues, among others, prompted the Charles County Board of Appeals to deny Dominion Energy’s request for a special exception to build the compressor station in the Rural Conservation Zone. In March 2018, the company filed suit in federal court, seeking to override the Board’s ruling. Dominion has secured approval for the compressor station from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which it claims supersedes the county’s zoning ordinance. The company is still required to obtain air and water permits from the state of Maryland.

What You Can Do to Help

On Tuesday, June 26, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Mount Vernon estate and Piscataway Park to its annual list of the eleven most endangered historic places in the United States. That same day, a press conference held at Mount Vernon announced the formation of a coalition of more than a dozen organizations working to oppose the construction of the compressor station.

Sign a petition to help stop the construction of Dominion Energy’s compressor station in Charles County, Maryland. Visit the Save Washington’s View web page to read about the work of the coalition and to learn how you can help preserve the view from Mount Vernon, one of the historic site’s character-defining features.