Among the state’s justifications for purchasing the 1,200-acre former development site Biscuit Run for $9.8 million plus an unspecified amount of tax credits was this: Large tracts of Albemarle County land are hard to come by.
The 4,500-acre Faulconer Tract, located near Ash Lawn-Highland and purchased by MeadWestvaco, offered nearly four times the land of Biscuit Run at the time the latter was purchased as a state park.
“I was skeptical that in Albemarle County, a pretty affluent place where land values were for the most part extraordinarily high, that we could ever afford to do that,” Joseph Elton, Virginia’s state parks director since 1994, told C-VILLE for a recent cover feature, “Taxpayer State Park.”
Yet at the time of the Biscuit Run purchase, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) had at least two other options. Last month, one of them—with four times the land and fewer development rights—sold for $23.75 million, which is likely comparable, if not significantly less, than the total amount of taxpayer money that went into purchasing Biscuit Run.
Around 2006, MeadWestvaco, a packaging supplies company with extensive timber holdings, decided to sell 4,500 contiguous Albemarle acres, dubbed the “Faulconer Tract,” that it no longer needed. The tract, between the Southwest Mountains and the Rivanna River, included land once owned by James Monroe.
The Nature Conservancy worked with a Charlottesville landscape architecture firm to flesh out a conceptual park proposal for the tentatively titled “Jefferson Monroe Park,” complete with maps, renderings, and plans for restoring the depleted timberland.
“The initial impressions of the site can be discouraging; the existing entrances lead to logging roads in thick stands of planted pine monocultures that cover the majority of the site,” reads the report, prepared by the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz. “But further investigation into the site reveals the still existent biodiversity at its core, its rich ecological potential, and its undoubted utility as a public park.”
Yet the state wasn’t won over. “Frankly, the price of it was something that was an obstacle to really being able to make anything happen,” says Bill Kittrell, director of conservation programs at The Nature Conservancy. MeadWestvaco advertised the property at $8,500 per acre, though it eventually sold for closer to $5,000 per acre.
DCR also cooled on the Faulconer Tract because it became interested in another site, Panorama Farms. With a mile stretch along the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, the 850-acre Panorama Farms could provide more recreation opportunities and expand public access to the body of water.
“We had been in discussions with DCR for two years, just informal discussions,” says Steve Murray, a co-owner of the property along with other family members. “But I will say that within the informal discussions, Panorama had risen to the top of their list. So the whole Biscuit Run thing just blindsided everybody, including them.”
Murray discussed with the state a bargain sale, in which the state would compensate the Murrays, but for less than the property’s fair market value. That’s how the Biscuit Run transaction was structured, though originally Biscuit Run’s investors had planned to make a complete donation of the property.
When C-VILLE spoke with former DCR director Joe Maroon several months ago, he mentioned that DCR had considered other properties, though he didn’t specify those targets.
“We had looked at some other properties that also were wonderful prospects, but neither of them were ready to go and Biscuit Run was,” said Maroon. “It was presented to us, they were ready to move, one way or the other, and that sense of urgency certainly got our attention—along with the value of the property.”
Panorama Farms isn’t under conservation easement, but Murray says that’s because it doesn’t need to be. “The entire family is on the same sheet of music regarding the preservation of that parcel of land, in some way or another.”
As for the Faulconer Tract, with around 450 development rights, it’s unclear what will happen to it now. MeadWestvaco sold the 4,500-acre property to the James C. Justice Companies Inc., out of Beaver, West Virginia. The head of the James C. Justice Companies is Jim Justice, who last year purchased the luxurious Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, vowing to return it to five-star status. Company representatives did not return repeated calls for comment.