Thanks, but no thanks: Albemarle County officials turn down 400 acres of pristine land

Montgomery “Bird” Woods grew up exploring Arrowhead Farm in Red Hill. He and his partner Jose Lambert want to give the 410-acre parcel to the county, but have been rebuffed. Photo: Elli Williams Montgomery “Bird” Woods grew up exploring Arrowhead Farm in Red Hill. He and his partner Jose Lambert want to give the 410-acre parcel to the county, but have been rebuffed. Photo: Elli Williams

On his 78th birthday last week, Montgomery “Bird” Woods led a four-wheeler tour of some of the 410-acre Red Hill property he explored as a boy and is spending his retirement enjoying with his partner, Jose Lambert.

“This was a loading dock for apples,” Woods said, pointing out a tumble of rocks near a high rock outcrop with sweeping views to the southeast. “I like to tell people if you look really carefully, you can see the ocean.”

He gets a kick out of the joke, but on a misty afternoon, you could almost believe it. At more than 1,600′, the summit towers over nearby Carters Mountain, and the land beyond, a patchwork of farm and forest, vanishes in the distance.

Arrowhead Farm has been in Woods’ family since the 1880s, and now, as he and Lambert think about their legacy, they want to give it away. But Albemarle County turned them down, a move that stunned the couple. They have hope officials will reconsider, and have made a final and formal offer. But the couple and some local conservationists who want to see the plot preserved worry that concerns over the cost of maintaining a new park will scuttle the deal.

Woods, son of prominent Virginia attorney William Sharpless Derrick Woods, met Lambert, a Cuban emigree who grew up in Miami, at UVA’s School of Architecture in the 1960s. After long stints in San Francisco and New York, they bought 21 acres of the old farm from Woods’ aunt, including the wisteria-choked 1760 cabin where his father was born. It became their favorite project, and then, before it was even finished, their home.

“We had our first Thanksgiving here, without any doors, in 1991,” Lambert said.

When his aunt died, she left the property to Woods and eight of his cousins. But the group couldn’t agree on what to do with the land. A 1994 Virginia Outdoors Foundation easement on the property allowed for some timbering, but arguments erupted over whether to conserve more or sell.

“I saw him being broken up by this,” said Lambert, looking over at his partner. “I said ‘Bird, you’ve got the money. Buy it.’”

In December, they did. But almost immediately the couple started thinking about what would happen after they were gone. “We had no heirs, so all of a sudden, it was, ‘What the hell are we going to do with this?’”

A gift to the county made sense on a practical level. The trails that criss-crossed the mountain and the views to the south and east would be good park features, and a simple donation would yield tax benefits for Lambert and Woods.

But it was an emotional decision, too. Woods’ ancestors were among the first European Americans to settle Albemarle County in the 1730s, and the family’s history is tied up in the land. Giving a piece of that legacy back just felt right, they said.

In late September, behind closed doors, county officials declined their offer. Only the county supervisors know what was discussed during the closed session, but White Hall District representative Ann Mallek made no bones about her opposition to accepting the land. For years, she said, the parks and recreation department has been underfunded and understaffed, and the county has been supporting it by raiding the tourism-supported Acquisition of Conservation Easements program—money that’s supposed to be used to buy up easements on ecologically sensitive parcels.

“Everybody loves the sound of a tax cut, but there are consequences when you continue to shrink the budget,” she said. She doesn’t think acquiring the land and doing nothing with it is acceptable, either.

“We can’t take responsibility for something where we’re then responsible for it being ruined,” she said.

Lonnie Murray, chair of the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee, said he understands the argument, but thinks the fact that the county is passing on the gift—hundreds of acres of land for recreation and the protection of the rare plant communities it’s home to—is a symptom of an anti-tax, anti-government streak that is dominating Board decisions.

“Would the citizens of Albemarle be willing to pay a little bit more, maybe half a penny on the tax rate, so that we can hire a few more park staff? I think that’s what it comes down to,” he said.

“I’m not one to jump in and raise taxes,” said Supervisor Duane Snow, who represents the Samuel Miller District, where the property lies. But he and other Board members have agreed to take another look at the offer—and take a tour of the land itself. They’ll be visiting the property this week.

“We want to understand exactly what’s there,” he said. “Maybe with some volunteer help, we can get it and take care of it without increasing personnel.”

Lambert and Woods are still incredulous that the county would say no to the land offer, but they’re not going to wonder at it for long. They’ve given the Board until the end of October to accept, and then they’re looking for another way to preserve it.

“The land might be here until the Earth blows up, but we’re not,” Lambert said. 

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