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Historic cemetery may benefit from shopping-center renovation

Fairfax leaders, preservationists press for protections near Pan Am Shopping Center

A proposal to revamp the Pan Am Shopping Center in the Vienna area of Fairfax County may breathe new life into an historic nearby cemetery.

In taking a procedural step forward on the development plan, Fairfax supervisors (strongly) suggested the shopping center’s owner make an effort to assist the family whose ancestors rest in the burial ground.

Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason) said it was “a little disappointing” that the plan for the Pan Am site proposed by Federal Realty Investment Trust and supported by county-government staff does not more fully address the future of the Thompson Family Cemetery.

“It’s going to have to be addressed in the [upcoming] rezoning,” Gross said. “Tell me how this will be protected from future damage. We need to be very careful.”

The cemetery currently contains only two grave markers, but many more Thompson family members are believed to be interred there, said Mary Lipsey of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association.

Lipsey pressed supervisors to push for a variety of improvements, including:

• Using ground-penetrating radar to map all those interred.

• Preservation of existing landscaping so as not to disturb gravesites.

• Providing easier access.

• Embarking on more research.

• Enforcing rules against no dogs on the site.

Lipsey also pressed to provide future residents of a multi-family complex planned for a portion of the Pan Am site information about the cemetery’s history.

“There’s 1,000 people who need to know,” she said.

County officials believe the first burial on the site took place in 1792, with other Thompson family members interred through 1915. Lipsey believes as many as 25 people may be buried there.

While there are several descendants of the original family still alive, they are getting older and less able to maintain the parcel, Lipsey said.

At the Sept. 12 hearing before the Board of Supervisors, an attorney for Federal Realty Investment Trust said the firm was aware of the cemetery’s importance and had been working with family members to address it.

Federal Realty was committed to “preserve, protect and respect” the cemetery, the attorney said, and Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence) said she believed there was a “strong working relationship” between the realty firm and the family.

The cemetery is one of a surprisingly large number of small burial grounds spread across Fairfax County. In the late 1970s, it almost fell victim to a road widening, but a court order mandated its preservation.