Free Union fray: Appeals board upholds rural business

Albemarle County affirmed that Carter Hilliard’s company in rural Free Union is an agricultural services business.
Staff photo Albemarle County affirmed that Carter Hilliard’s company in rural Free Union is an agricultural services business. Staff photo

Close to 100 of the landed gentry filled Lane Auditorium for an Albemarle Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, a crowd size rarely seen during the usual Board of Supervisors meetings there.

Well-heeled rural residents lined up for and against a Free Union Road business, lobbing accusations of “Californian,” “cronyism,” and “sleight of hand” in a June 4 hearing to determine whether Hilliard Estate and Land Management is a landscape company—forbidden commercial activity in the rural area—or one that provides agricultural services, which is allowed.

Former Tupperware CEO Rick Goings lives at Eagle Hill Farm, an estate once owned by Scripps heiress Betty Scripps. Across the street is a 217-acre parcel owned by Mary Scott and John “J.B.” Birdsall, who serves on the boards of Piedmont Environmental Council and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Monticello.

The Birdsalls leased the property to Carter Hilliard and company. Goings, his wife Susan, and a dozen neighbors contend the bulk of Hilliard’s business is landscaping, and they complain they weren’t notified Albemarle had allowed commercial activity. The land also is in a conservation easement.

The county determined that Hilliard’s business provides agricultural services, such as fencing, vineyard trellising, planting, and burning, a by-right use, and confirmed that in a July 26, 2018, letter. By-right activity does not require neighbor notification. And the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds the conservation easement, confirms that ag services are allowed under the easement.

Hilliard says his company acts as a farm manager for large and midsize farms, providing the equipment that wouldn’t be cost-effective for them to buy. He got a permit to build a 4,500-square-foot storage barn in November, and in January, the complaints began.

Then-zoning administrator Amelia McCulley, now deputy director of community development, investigated, and in a February 14 letter, said she stood by her original determination that Hilliard’s business was not in violation of county ordinances.

But the Goings appealed that decision, and at the June 4 meeting, both sides had lawyered up. Eleven of the 16 speakers were there in support of Hilliard, including Stuart and Ali King of King Family Vineyards. Buddy-from-college Stuart said he’d borrowed equipment from Hilliard to use at the vineyards on “many occasions.”

Andrew Baldwin, who owns Piedmont Place in Crozet and who built million-dollar condo project 550 Water, said he was founder of eco-development Bundoran Farm, where Hilliard does maintenance. Baldwin called the appeal “ridiculous.”

Susan Goings said she and her husband had been accused of being “Californians” for complaining about Hilliard. She told the board she cared about open-space protection, and had contributed $20,000 to the Birdsall and Hilliards’ lawsuit against Foxfield to prevent the sale of the 179-acre racetrack.

The county’s July 2018 letter of determination said Hilliard could perform landscaping services as an incidental use. Goings reported multiple lawn mowers and weed trimmers, which she said she didn’t see at her grandfather’s farm.

And she referred to high-end catalog Scout, where last year HELM advertised landscaping services, while this year “all the landscaping equipment is gone.” She also said the company had changed its website so that the landscaping services that were prominent a year ago are absent, and the focus is estate management.

“They’re trying to use some fancy language to call it something else, but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is a duck,” she said.

McCulley said in the Goings appeal of her decision, the burden was on them to prove their “irrelevant or unsubstantiated claims.”

Assistant county attorney Rich DeLoria reiterated that McCulley’s original go-ahead allowed some landscaping, and that the Goings had 30 days to appeal—and missed that deadline.

David Thomas, the lawyer for the Goings, suggested McCulley had been misled by Hilliard, and the county took his word about the nature of his business without demanding financial information about the sources of his revenue. He also alleged that when the county did an inspection, Hilliard was notified in advance.

Not true, said McCulley, who also said it was “very rare” to ask for financial information.

“If Mr. Hilliard wanted to hide, he’d never have gone to the zoning administrator in the first place,” said DeLoria. “The appellant is calling him and the zoning administrator liars.”

New Board of Zoning Appeals member Marcia Joseph described the situation as a “he said, she said.” But she came back to McCulley’s original letter, which allowed landscaping as a secondary use.

Former Albemarle sheriff Ed Robb, also on the BZA, said, “We look at the facts,” in particular, that the Goings had 30 days to appeal the 2018 determination, and hadn’t.

“This is a messy business,” said appeals board member David Bowerman, who once served on the Board of Supervisors. He voted to support McCulley’s determination, as did the rest of the board.

The 4-0 vote was followed by applause.

After, Hilliard said he appreciated the board’s decision “as I went through the proper channels to do business in Albemarle County.”

“I was shocked,” says Susan Goings. “We’re very concerned about the precedent, not just for Free Union, but for Albemarle County. It seems like a cronyism system.”

“They’re trying to use some fancy language to call it something else, but If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.” Susan Goings