"I think the concept is fantastic," says local realtor Jim Duncan about Bundoran Farm. "There isn't a comparable neighborhood in Albemarle or any of the surrounding areas that I am aware of."
Purchased in 2006 for $31 million, Bundoran Farm sold at auction in June 2011 for just $7.5 million.
File photo by Hawes Spencer
Talk about a development vision that won't die. Despite some enormous setbacks, including the fiery plane crash on Bundoran Farm that killed one of the original developers and an associate, and a real estate market collapse that saw the 2,300-acre property auctioned off on the steps of the Albemarle County Courthouse, the original vision for the property as a "preservation development" appears to be intact.
On May 1, the management of Natural Assets, a British company with offices in Charlottesville, announced that they had purchased Bundoran from Wells Fargo Bank for an undisclosed amount. In a recent statement, and on the company's website, Matthew Spence, the company's founder and CEO, has been emphatic about preserving the original vision for the development.
Indeed, not only is original vision for the property alive, but the new owners seem even more ambitious than the previous owners.
"We are committed to ensure that over the next 10 years, Bundoran Farm will become the number one
conservation-based residential community in the United States of America," declares Spence in a release. Attempts to reach Spence directly by press time were unsuccessful, but there was a decidedly confident tenor in the release. "This is a vast ambition," he says, "but one we are dedicated to deliver."
As detailed in the Hook, when Qroe Farm Preservation Development bought the property for $31 million back in 2006, the idea was not to cut up the farm land and build a bunch of houses, but to preserve its agriculture heritage and offer fewer homeowners the opportunity to live in harmony with its agrarian splendor.
For example, while county zoning would have allowed them to cut the parcel into 21-acre lots, over 90 percent of the land was going to be preserved, allowing for livestock pastures (farmers would be able to lease the land), apple orchards, and walking and riding trails. Lot sizes ranged from around two acres for under $300,000 to as much as 30-plus acres for around $1 million.
By the time the property was foreclosed upon in June 2011, 30 of the approximately 100 lots at Bundoran had been sold, and seven houses had been built, but it wasn't enough. Celebration Associates, the famous Walt Disney Company that master planned the Florida community of Celebration, and which had taken over developing Bundoran, had been slowly buckling under the weight of the original $31-million price tag for the property and the seriously cooling real estate market.
Around the time of the auction of the entire property for $7.5 million, Wells Fargo also foreclosed on the the original 6,500-square-foot Georgian manor house on the property on 55 acres, once the home of the Scott family, who built the mansion in the 1940s.
"The challenge," said Joe Barnes, Bundoran's development director at the time, "is figuring out how you balance the design vision with the business plan."
Unlike the developers of Biscuit Run, the other big development project sunk by the deflated real estate market, Bundoran's developers would not use the conservation tax credit system to recoup their losses, as Biscuit Run's developers did when they sold the 1,200-acre property to the state for use as a park. Instead, Bundoran's developers hoped that the original vision for the property might be taken up by someone else.
Fast forward over three years, and Spence, the property's new developer, may have an easier time of that, considering his company likely paid considerably less for the property, and that much of the planning and vision-making has already been done.
"It's a very good project," says Spencer in a video interview for Bundoran, "and there will be few changes."
The purchase delights the property's former owner.
"I think it's terrific," says Fred Scott, who sold the property to Qroe. "I can't think of a better outcome."
Spence calls it a "genius" model for a development of this kind, and the "perfect place where you could live in harmony with the agrarian landscape, and feel like you live in the wilderness, but be in a primary home, and have access to primary city markets."
Indeed, Spence says that his company plans to use the Bundoran "preservation development" model to replicate similar developments at up to 10 other large farms tracts up and down the east coast, and they appear to be taking steps in that direction.
Back in February, Spence and Natural Assets also scooped up another Celebration Associates project from Wells Fargo, the Homestead Preserve, a 1,300-acre property adjacent to the famed Homestead Resort, which they've been marketing as a "conservation-based community for sportsmen, artists, and philosophers."
Local realtor Jim Duncan calls Bundoran a "tremendous farm development" with a great location.
"I think the concept is fantastic," he says. "There isn't a comparable neighborhood in Albemarle or any of the surrounding areas that I am aware of, and it's always had a certain appeal to a segment of the market."
That segment, of course, has to have some money to spend. According to the Charlottesville MLS, since 2011, there have been only 17 land sales for parcels between $400,000 and $1.2 million, and four of those have been at Bundoran. Given that sales pace, it could be awhile before Bundoran is completely built out. Indeed, how many people are there out there who can afford to, and want to, spend $800,000 on a piece of land? Especially when there are all kinds of great properties out there for that price and far less.
What's more, 21 lots at Fray's Grant, an 800-acre conservation and "wilderness" community not unlike the Bundoran concept just north of Earlysville, will be going up for sale at a foreclosure auction on May 31 at the Doubletree Hotel. Could be some good deals to be had. But, as Duncan points out, Bundoran is special.
"It's going to be interesting to see how many buyers are interested as Bundoran moves forward," says Duncan.