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December 05, 2010

West Virginia company buys 4,500 acres in Albemarle near Ash Lawn-Highland and Monticello

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, December 5, 2010

The family that owns The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia has acquired 4,500 acres in Albemarle County south of Ash Lawn-Highland and Monticello.

The James C. Justice Cos. purchased 55 parcels from MeadWestvaco Corp. for $23.75 million in a deal that closed last week.

20101205-MeadWestvaco James C. Justice II is CEO of the family-run West Virginia company known for its coal mining, farming and timber operations. Justice bought The Greenbrier in 2009 when it was facing bankruptcy. Justice company representatives did not respond to a request to comment on their intentions for the property in Albemarle.

James H. Hill, a MeadWestvaco vice president, confirmed the sale and said the property was no longer needed for the company’s timber operations.

“Several years ago, MeadWestvaco launched a rural land sales program,” Hill said in an e-mail. “These properties have been managed for decades to the highest standards … ideal for investors or outdoor enthusiasts. This 4,500-acre tract has been managed for fiber supply and is no longer strategic for the company’s needs.”

MeadWestvaco’s land sales website advertised the property as the “Presidential Estates” given its location near the homes of U.S. Presidents James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The advertised price was $38.5 million and the land, zoned for rural use, has an assessed value of $21.5 million. It sold to the Justice Cos. for $2.25 million over the tax assessment.

Rex Linville, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s land conservation officer for Albemarle County, said he thought the land had the potential for about 450 residential units.

“That’s a best-case scenario, not accounting for critical slopes and road access,” Linville said. “That said, I don’t know what they intend to do. We would like an opportunity to work with an owner like this on preservation of the property, and we hope that’s the new owner’s intent.”

‘Historically significant’

Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, said in a prepared statement that “the land to the south of Monticello is historically significant, since it remains largely as Jefferson saw it.”

“We are committed to working with our community partners to ensure protection of the viewshed from Monticello,” Bowman added. “We welcome our new neighbors and look forward to working together to protect Jefferson’s views for future generations.”

Christopher Owens, a historic preservationist from Spotsylvania, has been working since 2004 to complete a mapping project of land once owned by President Monroe.

“Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn-Highland, is a 535-acre remnant of what was a 3,500-acre estate,” Owens said. “The MeadWestvaco tract has 700 acres of Monroe’s original Highland estate.”

“Ecologically and historically, it is really an historic piece of property,” Owens said. “The use has remained unchanged throughout civilized history. Owners have always used this land for timber. In fact, Monroe had a sawmill on the property and it is likely that his old grist mill was there too.”

Bigger than Biscuit Run

At 4,500 acres, the MeadWestvaco parcels combined are 3 1/2 times the size of the Biscuit Run development that the state bought last year for a future state park. The commonwealth paid $9.8 million for the 1,200 acres, plus an unspecified amount of Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credits.

Bill Kittrell, director of conservation programs at The Nature Conservancy, said the MeadWestvaco land had been identified as an attractive site for a park prior to the state’s acquisition of Biscuit Run. His organization got involved soon after MeadWestvaco put it on the market in 2006.

“We were involved in trying to find a way to protect the MeadWestvaco property either through state ownership or conservation easements with private ownership,” Kittrell said. “I think whatever timber liquidity there was, they have already extracted what was of any value. Given its location near Monticello, the value is less in timber and more in other forms of development, like residential and estate land.”

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy had local Charlottesville-based Nelson, Byrd, Woltz Landscape Architects prepare a master plan for a public park and nature preserve. At that time, Biscuit Run was poised to become Albemarle’s largest residential development in history, having already been approved for up to 3,100 homes.

The conceptual master plan for “Jefferson Monroe Park” was shared with state officials and potential investors. Ridge Schuyler, a former member of the local Nature Conservancy staff, said he toured the property when the park concept was being developed.

“It has beautiful bones,” Schuyler said. “It’s a nice, rolling piece of property with spectacular views back towards Monticello and the Southwest Mountains. In its post timbered state, it’s not the most attractive, but you could see the potential.”

“I don’t know how much value it has as timber property,” Schuyler added. “MeadWestvaco sold it because it wasn’t close to their sawmills, and it hasn’t moved any closer.”

Hopes for the future

Owens observed that a unique opportunity exists with the University of Virginia’s ownership of the adjacent Morven Farm.

“My goal was to at least get [Monroe’s] 700 acres back somehow,” Owens said. “One could easily create an almost 12,000-acre park unifying the land with Morven, Ash Lawn-Highland and Monticello. It’s a very historic landscape. Mr. Justice could still harvest timber and do that.”

The PEC’s Linville questioned such a high price being paid for a long-term timber investment.

“I called contacts in the timber business, and they said that the price didn’t make sense from a timber investment perspective, you wouldn’t recoup your investment on timber alone,” Linville said. “It’s also equally unlikely someone would pay that price from a residential development angle. Since neither scenario really makes sense in today’s market, my hope is it’s a conservation transaction.”

Besides The Greenbrier, the Justice family has owned or developed other large recreational properties. According to Marshall University’s website, where Jim Justice received his undergraduate and MBA degrees, the family developed the Stoney Brook Plantation, a 15,000-acre hunting and fishing preserve in West Virginia’s Monroe County.

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