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Saving Waterford's 'Viewshed'

The John Wesley Church was finished in 1891, and is one of the many historical buildings in Waterford.
Raphael Schweber-Koren, npr.org /
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The John Wesley Church was finished in 1891, and is one of the many historical buildings in Waterford.
W. Brown Morton III proposed the boundaries for the Waterford Historic District.
Raphael Schweber-Koren, npr.org /
/
W. Brown Morton III proposed the boundaries for the Waterford Historic District.
The view towards the Phillips Farm as seen from Waterford.
Raphael Schweber-Koren, npr.org /
/
The view towards the Phillips Farm as seen from Waterford.
The view of Waterford from the Phillips Farm. This area is targeted for development by Historic Fields, LLC.
Raphael Schweber-Koren, npr.org /
/
The view of Waterford from the Phillips Farm. This area is targeted for development by Historic Fields, LLC.

The Waterford National Historic District's 1,420 acres encompasses both the historic town and its "viewshed," preserving both the look and feel of 18th and 19th century America.

Lining the streets of Waterford are the buildings of an era long past. Historic houses, the old mill, the church, and above all, the view. When W. Brown Morton III proposed the district's boundaries, he placed them just beyond the ridges he could see from the houses in the village. He calls this area the "viewshed."

NPR's Jacki Lyden visited Waterford to report on the threat one developer, Historic Fields, LLC, poses to the viewshed, and on the efforts a nonprofit organization dedicated to the town's preservation is taking to save it.

Earlier this spring, the 60-year-old Waterford Foundation heard that the family that owned the land wanted to sell. The foundation believed it had an acceptable offer. But it was shocked to discover the family had already sold the property to a developer planning to turn it into a multi-home subdivision.

The Middleburg, Va., broker for the deal says the family that sold the land has no desire to talk about the sale. And because of the legal definition of limited liability corporations, anonymity prevails.

Frustrated, members of the Waterford Foundation turned to the National Trust for Public Lands, a nonprofit organization whose mission includes working to safeguard the character of communities by preserving historic landmarks and landscapes.

Just last week, the trust was able to get a contract for the Phillips Farm for $3.9 million. Waterford has already raised some of the money, and has received a grant from the Department of Agriculture. But it must raise $2 million more by Oct. 31.

Waterford is doing everything it can to help come up with the funds. It is selling preservation bonds and holding poster contests for children. It hopes to raise money at its annual fair. And it has even dusted off the work of local turn-of-the-century artist and poet Mary Steer, whose paintings of Waterford have become the town's unofficial preservation symbol.

But Brown Morton, a professor of historic preservation at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., says that even if Waterford manages to buy back the land and the farm, the issue has highlighted the competitive instinct at play in acquiring land. The competitive instinct has gone too far, he says, favoring developers over communities.

"We are always coming from behind to protect what everybody else sees as of value," says Brown Morton, who has consulted on preservation projects around the world. "So what I want to do is flip the system and say OK, you want to develop this piece of property? In what way can you demonstrate that it is going to improve the lot of the citizens of our country?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacki Lyden
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.