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Fate of Ball Burial Ground Uncertain as Development Nears

Development may be surging around the Ball Family Burial Grounds on N. Kirkwood Street, but the fate of the historic site remains uncertain.

The gravesite of the family who is the namesake for Ballston is located in the middle of Virginia Square’s newest development hub, which includes plans to rebuild the YMCA and repurpose American Legion Post 139 as mixed residential buildings.

The Arlington County Board is also set to vote Saturday to approve a third project in the area: a long-standing application by Eleventh Street Development LLC to redevelop the 1.726 acre site located at 1122 N. Kirkwood Road at Washington Boulevard, currently a mix of one-story retail and office uses, into a new 255-unit multifamily residential building.

But when it comes to the plan for the cemetery — which is adjacent to the new development —  the county is at an impasse, according to Richard Woodruff, chairman of the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB). The county can’t legally access the land to maintain it or take actions to preserve it because it was deeded to the heirs of John Ball who founded it in the 1700s.

The problem? No one knows who those heirs are.

During a Thursday visit to the grounds, Woodruff pointed out how wild strawberries have overgrown the gravesites’ grass and a secret Samaritan has been mowing the plot.

“It’s sort of now a mystery as to who maintains it,” he said.

However, other site maintenance issues are piling up. Broken branches rest on the dozen mossy grave stones piled in the far corner of the burial ground where the grass grows higher and trash accumulates.

HALRB and the Arlington Planning Commission have asked the county to hire a genealogist to locate the Ball family heirs. They added that the county should also create a fund to maintain the land and study what could be buried in the cemetery because people have moved the graves over time.

These recommendations are not included in the list of actions for the Board members to review this weekend.

A staff report to the Board notes that one of the project’s goals is to “preserve, respect and enhance the historic integrity” of the gravesite. But aside from asking developers to follow protocols if they find artifacts or human remains during construction, the document is short on specifics.

County staff wrote that Arlington has several burial grounds with murky ownership and in need of research and repair — all things requiring resources the county doesn’t have.

“At this time, the County has not yet begun such a concerted and comprehensive effort,” the staff report says.

The gravesite is currently sandwiched between the properties with no road access. The Kirkwood development plans to build an access road that will run along the eastern side of the gravesite, and the YMCA project is planning a bike path along the north side of the gravesite — but county staff said there are no plans yet for a path going directly to the gravesite.

Staff noted the reason for not opening the site up to the public via a direct path was to preserve its “historical integrity.”

Currently, visitors can access the graveyard by squeezing around cars at a nearby auto body shop and heading through a break in a chain-link fence.

Woodruff said tenants at the new development are likely to explore the space, which could be a good opportunity to share the graveyard’s history if the site is well maintained. But with no plans for its future in place, he worries that the graveyard will become an “overgrown dog park.”

The county designated the site as a local historic district in 1978 and has also discussed a historic designation for another Ball family cemetery located outside Ballston’s Central United Methodist Church.

Image 2 via Arlington County

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