Selling Bundoran Farm: Matt Spence bets big on southern Albemarle County’s natural beauty

Buying the farm

John and Diane Forasté first saw Bundoran Farm in early 2007. Their son had an internship as an environmental engineer with McKee Carson, a Charlottesville-based landscape architecture firm that helped plan and build the roads on the development, and he wanted to show them the property. At the time, Joe Barnes of Celebration and David Hamilton of Qroe were the feet on the ground of the operation, and it was the two of them who had the job of explaining the charter and ferrying prospective buyers around in a vehicle they called the cattle cart. Elizabeth Scott still lived at Upper Bundoran, the large brick manor house on the highest hill in the north section of the property at the foot of Israel Mountain, and her son, Fred, lived in the older house at Lower Bundoran.

“There were no roads, there were no houses. There was just the farm and Fred Scott’s place,” Diane said.

The Forastés are in their late 60s. John is a professional photographer, Diane a grade school teacher, and they are close to the ends of their careers. After 36 years in the same home near Providence, Rhode Island, they were thinking about the next chapter in their life. They loved the idea of retiring on the Maine coast, but there were the grandchildren to think about too.

Their daughter, who’d moved to Charlottesville to start a family, began showing them around potential properties east and west of town, but they couldn’t get Bundoran Farm out of their head.

“We would look and we would go in but every time our hearts just came back to this place. It just felt so different,” Diane said.

Part of the reason Bundoran feels different is because the home sites and roads are planned in a way that they don’t interfere with views. They are in general located in creases in the land, and the roads, which are only 16′ wide, follow topographical contours. The other reason it feels different is because in a development that is supposed to hold 100 homes there are still only 13 standing on the land.

In late 2007 the Forastés bought one of the two smallest lots in the community on a steep, forested piece of land above Hightop Road and eventually built a home, a modest 1,300 square-foot tree house designed by local architect Jeff Sties of Sunbiosis. The house sits on stilts and combines contemporary and traditional aesthetics. In the summer, the Forastés live in a thick canopied forest in the midst of the rhododendron. In the winter, they look out across a broad pasture landscape to a distant ridgeline.

“When I heard the term preservation development I was skeptical. How do you develop and preserve?” John said. “But the more we looked into it and saw how this place was planned, the more we thought it made sense.”

Grady Lewis and his wife Diane bought into the community about the same time and eventually used the same architect to build in a similar part of the farm. Grady grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and had been living in Goochland County, in a former lockkeeper’s house on the Kanawha Canal alongside the James River. When the couple was ready to retire, they went looking “along the folds of the Blue Ridge for a place to live out the rest of the days.”

“When I saw that narrow, small valley of which there are numerous narrow, small valleys in southern Albemarle, a tear or two welled up,” Grady said. “And so it was an emotional reaction to the land that really persuaded me that we needed to do our best to make a go of it at Bundoran Farm.”

Diane and Grady Lewis sit in the screened in porch of their house in Bundoran Farm. Photo: Ashley Twiggs
Diane and Grady Lewis sit in the screened in porch of their house in Bundoran Farm. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

The Forastés and Lewises, along with retired 72-year-old pediatrician Dorothy Thompkins and her husband, Bill, were part of the first class of Bundoran Farm owners. They were all looking for access to nature, and in particular to open, agricultural land, without the work that kind of property usually comes with.

“Especially at our age, I mean it’s not as if we were 30 and wanted to farm,” Thompkins said. “But the combination of the concept of maintaining a large farming area intact with multiple homeowners plus the environmentally-friendly approach to managing the forest and the agricultural area attracted us.”

They self-identify as “true believers” in the vision of the property and they purchased their land right at the turn of the real estate market. As people of retirement age, they were making an emotional investment in a new stage in life and a financial investment in a unique kind of land proposition.

“We were coming to a place that’s near Charlottesville and Charlottesville is a lovely city. It offered a lot. And that was important too. It’s only 25 minutes away. It’s like the best of both worlds, having accessibility to everything it offers, the University and so forth, and being in an environment that’s beautiful all four seasons,” Diane Forasté said.

Grady Lewis said he worried he wouldn’t be able to afford his land, but he decided it was worth reaching for because the alternative was a little bit bigger lot with a lot less certainty about what would happen around him.

“If you look at the price of a lot at Bundoran, and we have a small lot that’s less than three acres, the price is more than $100,000 an acre and so it’s up there,” Grady said. “One of the ways I looked at that now and then, was that if one had dreamed of living on a farm of substantial acreage that’s still working, well then $300,000 is a small price to pay.”

The three families I spoke to all bought small lots along Edge Valley. They have lived for five years on a development designed to hold between 200 and 400 people. Some of the lots on the farm are as large as 30 acres and sell for over $800,000. They come setup for horses, and were designed to attract the type of buyers who purchase land along Garth Road or in Keswick.

When Wells Fargo took over the development, of the 100 platted lots on the farm, 30 were sold and there were seven houses standing. Today, 40 are sold and there are 13 houses standing, including the Scott’s original homes and the Baldwin Center, a visitor’s center and community building. The community charter is such that once 75 of the lots are sold, the management of the development turns over to the community association. Essentially, the first group of owners bought into a natural vision of a responsible development and they have lived since on a virtually empty farm. I asked them if, during the successive phases of financial upheaval in the ownership structure, they ever worried about the value of their investments or feared that the charter would be dissolved if the development failed to come to fruition.

“The fact that it was sold and everything, did it cause any concern?” John Forasté said. “Yeah. But at the same time we felt very strongly that legally the protection of the land and the concept and the way it’s divided up into conservation easements and the green building design, all these things were intact and protected, and we felt pretty secure.”

Lewis said Wells Fargo had been a good steward of the project, dropping $25,000 on the restoration of the old Massie Barn and hiring Celebration Associates to interface with the owners. He also had faith in the value of his investment over the long run.

“I’m an optimist at heart and I had no doubt that the economy would turn, which it’s certainly beginning to do, particularly from a real estate perspective, and that there was no way that a place that is this beautiful and that is conceived with the kind of ingenuity that Bundoran Farm was could fail,” he said.

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