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Great Falls equine group gets the OK for satellite location

Fairfax Board of Zoning Appeals gives OK to Lift Me Up! proposal
Two first-responders pose with horses J and T at Lift Me Up! in Great Falls. The organization on Jan. 10, 2024, obtained approval from the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals to open another facility in the community.

Having outgrown its main facility in Great Falls, equine-therapy group Lift Me Up! soon will begin providing wellness programs at a satellite location in the community.

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals on Jan. 10 voted 6-0 to allow the nonprofit organization to establish a riding-and-boarding stable at 1051 Kelso Road in Great Falls.

The facility’s main clients will include seniors, veterans, first responders and at-risk youths.

Lift Me Up! began 49 years ago by providing riding lessons to people with disabilities, including severely disabled people who had to be placed on horses using a lift, said Julie Casso, the organization’s executive director.

The group still provides those services at its primary site at 9700 Georgetown Pike in Great Falls, but in the last five years also has begun offering wellness programs.

That recent initiative began with the help of an Arlington County police officer, Casso said.

“He said, ‘It would be really nice to get officers out here to decompress from the stress of their job [and] just be around the horses,’” she said.

People participating in the wellness programs now include not only public-safety personnel, but also youths and adults from treatment centers, Casso said.

“We’re always surprised” by the benefits clients get from the horses, she said, adding that some clients who rarely speak will talk to the animals. “Sometimes it’s just the peace of someone coming and rubbing a horse’s nose for 10 minutes and that makes their day a better day.”

The organization has run out of room for wellness programs at its Georgetown Pike site. The property on Kelso Road already is used for equestrian purposes, so the group did not need to ask anything special from the county, Casso said.

The group will operate the facility from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days per week, starting with one equine-therapy session per day and maxing out at six.

Each session will last about one hour and serve up to eight participants, meaning a maximum of 48 clients per day at full capacity. Lift Me Up! will stagger the sessions and have at least a 30-minute break between them, so only one group will be on site at a time.

Up to three instructors will arrive before the sessions begin and work at the site only when sessions are being provided. One or two part-time employees will feed the horses and do other barn chores from 8 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m.

A maximum of four employees will be on site at any given time. In an effort to minimize the number of vehicles accessing the site, and hence the amount of required parking, program participants will be ferried to the property in a passenger van.

Lift Me Up! is leasing the property from its owner. Program employees and participants will not be allowed to park on surrounding residential streets.

The 6.02-acre site now contains an approximately 5,000-square-foot single-family home and a 20-foot-tall, 2,600-square-foot stable, both built in 1985. The stable has eight horse stalls and a bathroom.

The property also has a riding ring, pastures and 6,500-square-foot parking area with 13 spaces, located next to the stable. The site is served by public sewer and uses a private well.

Four horses owned by people not affiliated with the applicant now are boarded at the stable, which is considered a by-right accessory use in the R-E residential zone. Following the BZA’s approval, four additional horses owned by Lift Me Up! will be boarded at the site.

County zoning rules allow up to three horses per acre in that zone, so up to 18 could be boarded there.

While the house is accessible from Kelso Road, the stable, riding ring and parking area connect with Ramey Lane via a driveway along the southern lot line.

The property’s northeastern third is encumbered by a resource-protection area (RPA) associated with a Difficult Run tributary. The site’s existing structures are located outside the RPA’s boundaries.

Following county staff’s recommendation, BZA members waived the required 100-foot setback for the existing structures and 50-foot setback for the parking area.

Lift Me Up! did not request to provide mounted riding lessons as part of this application.

“No construction is proposed with the application. The facility will operate at a relatively low intensity and will not adversely impact surrounding properties,” said county planning staffer Brandon McFadden. “The participants will not be riding horses on the property.”