On June 2, North Carolina resident Janet Leitch stood before Charlottesville’s City Council to speak about the historic seven-acre estate on East Market Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood where she grew up.
“I was going to write a letter but then just decided to come up,” she says. During the public comment period, Leitch implored the city to protect the land her grandfather, James Branham, had farmed for nearly three decades of the last century.
Janet Leitch remembers when 1512 E. Market St. was a farm tended by her grandfather, with corn, wheat, cattle and a smokehouse. Now, the inadvertant loss of some of the land’s historic preservation could expedite an entire Woolen Mills historic district.
“He worked it all the time, you never saw a weed,” Leitch says. There was a front garden with every kind of vegetable, she says, while in the back field behind their house her grandfather grew corn, wheat, and melons. Horses and cows roamed some of the land, as did the hogs that were killed and cured in a smokehouse that was her grandfather’s prized possession.
Now the smokehouse is gone, as is some of the backfield where a mini-storage facility was erected in 2001 by current owner Preston Coiner.
For years, Leitch assumed her family’s estate was protected from development. In 1993, Charlottesville’s City Council designated it an individually protected property (IPP), preventing any construction or alteration of structures on that parcel (or any future subdivisions thereof) without a hearing before the Board of Architectural Review.
However, the land was also sold and first subdivided in 1989 by then owner Blake Hurt. In 1996, the acreage was sold to Coiner, who subdivided the parcel and redrew its boundary lines on various occasions. Then, when part of the property was subdivided in 2001, a city staffer forgot to add the new parcels to the protected properties list. Two years later, when the city undertook a broad rezoning of Charlottesville, no one caught the mistake. Somehow, only the parcel the actual house sat on was protected. The field to the west was not.
More than five years later, two Woolen Mills residents—Bill Emory and Victoria Dunham—discovered the error and have spent the last year and a half trying to get the IPP status restored. A hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals turned into a lawsuit against the city that was recently dropped.
The latest attempt to restore the entire acreage’s IPP status came before City Council on June 2 in the form of a resolution. Council opted not to restore the IPP status and instead to expedite a survey already underway for the Woolen Mills neighborhood for state and national register recognition. Council recommended that local historic status also be sought for the area, which would bring it under BAR review.
“We believe this is a more appropriate remedy,” says Jim Tolbert, director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services.
“Will that be adequate to protect this property?” asks Dunham, ever skeptical of the city. “We’ll see.”
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