Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpProgress sometimes means digging up the past.

That’s what the earnest folks at Central United Methodist Church in Ballston are confronting as they lay plans to level their own 91-year-old building. In its place on Fairfax Drive they envision a modern sanctuary, renewed preschool space and 128 new parking spaces.

Plus a new and ambitious eight-story building with 132 apartments, 55 of them designated as affordable.

The new facility would also allow the church to expand its active ministry in cooking for Arlington’s homeless.

The problem? The church’s side yard on North Stafford Street contains 18th-century gravestones from the neighborhood’s founding Ball family. An undetermined number of human remains might have to be moved.

Details were announced weekly beginning Sept. 15 in those little-noticed legal notices in the Sun-Gazette seeking an archaeological permit. It’s aimed at Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, and Circuit Court. After itemizing six known and three potential Ball family members buried there, the proposal says all remains will “be archaeologically disinterred and relocated to another cemetery in the county where other Ball family members are interred.”

Possible new sites could include the Ball cemetery off Washington Blvd. at Kirkwood Rd., Columbia Gardens, or sites where other old Arlington families rest.

That’s what I learned from an interview with church attorney Tad Lunger of McGuire Woods. With Boyd Sipe of Thunderbird Archaeology and two developers from the Bozzuto Group, they made the case for moving the graves only after a thorough study that has included ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked remains.

So far, results are “inconclusive,” said Sipe, citing some anomalies and “shafts that have potential to be a gravesite but could be past utility work or church construction.” If, in a future phase, the team identifies a coffin or bones, a skeletal biologist will analyze them in a lab before reburial, Sipe added.
One justification for disturbing the graves is that records suggest they may have already been moved from their original sites when Central United was rebuilt in the 1920s, back when Stafford Street was Clements Ave., Lunger said.
Records aren’t clear, but “we’ve done research on where the county did re-development in the 1940s-‘60s, and many old graveyards were relocated,” he said. When the old United Methodist chancery was knocked down nearly a century ago, the new church was sited at the lot’s center, hemming those gravestones off to one side, so a move would have made sense, he said.

“We want to make sure we do this respectfully,” the attorney added. After all, the larger project is a “nonprofit endeavor with an affordable housing partnership, a unique opportunity on expensive land across from Metro. All of Ballston would benefit.”

But Rebeccah Ballo, the county’s historic planner, stresses that “there are no records from the county, church or court or anybody showing that graves were already exhumed. Anyone can see with their own eyes” the graves are old, she said. The county’s role is to assure a fair process. “We try to be sure that many public goods – transportation, land use, affordable housing – are respected. We don’t see them as diametrically opposed.”

A public meeting is set for Oct. 6 at the church, with comments due Oct. 13. Folks from the nonprofit Preservation Arlington and the Arlington Historical Society are monitoring the proposed reburials. Neither has finalized a position.

The Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board will review the issue next month.


As a self-proclaimed “world-class urban community,” Arlington is going world-class on streetlights.

I first noticed the Victorian-looking “Carlisle-style” lampposts on Old Dominion Drive near Williamsburg Blvd. But Environmental Services Department spokeswoman Katie O’Brien tells me they’ve gone up in more than 90 percent of Arlington where streetlights are county-owned.

Beneath the elegant casings is intelligent light-emitting diode technology that efficiently extends lightbulb lifespans from three to 25 years and use 75 percent less power, she said. “The lights produce uniform distribution and dispersion, creating safer roadways and sidewalks for all users.”