Sustainability at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church


by Suzanne Cleary

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Summer 2007)

Faith and Sustainability: Watershed Improvements at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church

This summer the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria (MVUC) became the first congregation in Fairfax County to participate in a public-private partnership for the benefit of the county’s water resources. The church supported construction of stormwater management structures on its property and entered into a cooperative agreement with Fairfax County. The project, which benefited the church and the larger community, supported MVUC’s goal to become a “Green Sanctuary.”

Becoming a “Green Sanctuary”

The Unitarian Church, founded in 1538 in Transylvania, is a social justice-based faith that has long been linked with a love of nature. Former church members include several American presidents including John Adams, reformer Susan B. Anthony, and authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, the noted naturalist and philosopher who anticipated modern environmentalism.

The “Green Sanctuary” program of the modern Unitarian Church challenges congregations to demonstrate that they are living their commitment to the earth, and that individual members and the church community are developing a sustainable life style. Green Sanctuary goals include building awareness of society’s environmental issues, committing to making personal lifestyle changes, and motivating church members to take action on environmental issues, among others. The four Green Sanctuary program elements are: worship and celebration, religious education, environmental justice, and sustainable living.

Several years ago, MVUC formed a Green Sanctuary Task Force to support “Green Sanctuary” certification, raise awareness at the church about the global environmental crisis and initiate environmental action. The task force’s efforts have yielded tangible results, benefiting church members individually and as a congregation, along with the neighborhood and the community.

The Green Sanctuary Task Force has, for example, written environmental articles for the MVUC newsletter and hosted annual community Earth Day Fairs. The church has created “Eat Your Values” lunches emphasizing eating whole, local, seasonal and organic foods with minimal packaging, has distributed fair trade coffee, tea and cocoa, and held Simplicity Circles to learn about living more simply on the land. To encourage wildlife and watershed-friendly gardening, the church sold blue bird boxes and native plants and certified the grounds as an official Backyard Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation.

To facilitate both sustainable living and religious growth, the church has also hosted environmental speakers and led environmentally-focused church services. This past March, the task force organized a regional environmental symposium to share information and success stories among Unitarian congregations and leverage regional environmental efforts.

A Partnership for Watershed Protection

One major success for the MVUC Green Sanctuary Task Force is the recent installation by Fairfax County of two rain gardens, an inlet structure, and check dams at the church to control runoff quantity and improve local water quality.

The Mount Vernon area is arguably one of the oldest, most highly developed, and therefore most environmentally degraded sections of Fairfax County. Starting in 2003, Fairfax County held a series of community meetings in Mount Vernon focused on improving and protecting local streams. The county solicited community input to determine what problems and issues faced the area, and worked with the community to develop an extensive plan to improve water quality and habitat in Little Hunting Creek, the largest local stream, and its watershed. MVUC members participated in these community meetings, where the church became known for its commitment to environmental action.

In 2005, MVUC was selected as one of the first entities to participate in implementation of the Little Hunting Creek Watershed Plan. Fairfax County provided more than $60,000 for projects at MVUC because of the great benefits these improvements would provide the county and its streams. MVUC straddles two subwatersheds of Little Hunting Creek and its seven acres are at the highest point in the drainage area. As a result, when it rains a large volume of rapidly moving water flows downhill from the church property. This runoff erodes habitat in the watershed and delivers pollutants and sediment to local streams and the Potomac River.

Stormwater management practices installed at MVUC will help limit the volume of runoff, reduce erosion down slope, and remove pollutants. The MVUC project features two rain gardens on one side of the driveway and an inlet structure on the other side. A broad dip at the top of the driveway directs parking lot runoff to the larger rain garden. A series of stone check dams channels runoff on the opposite side of the driveway to a new inlet structure connected to the existing storm drain. The driveway was also crowned to direct water at the base of the driveway to either the new inlet structure or the second, smaller rain garden.

Pre-project landscape
Prior to installation of the upper rain garden, runoff from the lawn, driveway and parking lot flowed into directly into a yard inlet (left) or down the driveway causing erosion down slope.
A new rain garden at the church
A dip added to the parking lot directs runoff into a new rain garden, which slows and filters the water.
Checkdams along the church driveway
A series of check dams slows runoff and reduces erosion by directing flow to a new storm drain inlet.

“The county made sure the project design met as much of their watershed protection goals as possible, but they also respected our congregation’s values and community process,” says Steve Dressing, an MVUC member and environmental professional who managed the project for the church. “Green space is very important to our congregation and the county was able to complete construction with minimal impact to trees or our meadow. They also were very responsive when we had questions and concerns from our congregation. The project at MVUC is testament to the county’s ability and willingness to work with the community.”

In a highly developed area like Mount Vernon, where most of the land is privately-owned, Fairfax County must rely upon partners like MVUC to accomplish the goals incorporated in the Little Hunting Creek Watershed Plan. “MVUC went above and beyond to make this project possible and working with the congregation has been very gratifying,” affirms Steve Aitcheson, Director of Stormwater Planning with Fairfax County. “MVUC is clearly a leader in the Mount Vernon area when it comes to environmental issues.” The successful project at MVUC will serve as a model for future partnerships between the county and faith-based groups.

An “Environmental Consortium”

Starting with MVUC’s participation in the Little Hunting Creek Watershed Plan community meetings, the Green Sanctuary Task Force began cultivating an “environmental consortium” of entities supportive of MVUC’s environmental actions. This consortium – which includes the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District – offers a win/win situation for all of the groups. The consortium facilitates networking and helps everyone stay informed about the latest environmental developments and opportunities. The connections and synergies that have developed benefit all.

The church’s Earth Day events and recent Unitarian Universalist symposium have extended the consortium’s efforts. Representatives from Huntley Meadows Park, Bolling Air Force Base, local hybrid car dealerships, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, the EcoStewards Alliance, and the Raptor Society of Virginia, just to name a few, have become partners and friends that help support MVUC’s environmental efforts.

Jeanette Stewart, with the non-profit Lands and Waters, Inc., is one such friend whose relationship with MVUC grew out of the local watershed planning process. As well as presenting at the March symposium, Jeanette has provided information about the abilities of green roofs and rain gardens to successfully manage water runoff at multiple MVUC Earth Day Fairs.

Through Jeanette, MVUC met Bob Slusser from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, who linked the church with potential grant funding for the green roof being considered on a church addition. He also introduced MVUC to Terry Clements of the Virginia Tech Department of Landscape Architecture. Terry held class on the church’s seven-acre property this spring. Her students’ outstanding design projects included recommendations for improvements to limit water runoff from the church property, environmentally-friendly parking pavers, and the use of native plants in landscaping.

Rabbi Daniel Swartz and his team from Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light (GWIPL) also participated in the MVUC-sponsored Earth Day Fairs and symposium. MVUC plans to work with GWIPL to complete its energy audit, one of the final steps leading to MVUC’s Green Sanctuary certification.

Mount Vernon Unitarian Church is grateful to the organizations it has worked with over the past several years on environmental projects, including Fairfax County, which recently installed the new stormwater management practices at the church. There is no doubt that these practices benefit the church, our local environment, and the community.

When organizations consciously, synergistically work together, they can contribute to green improvements that benefit the earth and its inhabitants. The need has never been more urgent than now for individuals and organizations to join hands, linking and leveraging environmental efforts so that our children and grandchildren have a planet to live on.


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