Breaking ground: Wood builds mammoth 'cabin on the hill'
“Why would you want to write about some house I'm building?" That was developer Wendell Wood in a Hook cover story last February, when asked about the mansion he was building. The "real story" he said was the expansion around National Ground Intelligence Center and the prospect of 1,500 new jobs. "Now that's a story," said Wood.
Indeed, Wood’s developments along Route 29 over the last 30 years have been an ongoing story that earned him plenty of economic kudos and conservation-minded critics, but as the size of his new house becomes apparent (even from miles away), one may recall his reluctance to talk about it.
"It's just," he said with a smile, "that people hate me enough as it is."
According to County records, Wood’s new house will tip the scales at 15,554 finished square feet with another 14,269 square feet of unfinished basement, decks, and porches–- putting it within range of Patricia Kluge's 23,000 square-foot Albemarle House and making it not only one of the biggest houses ever built in Virginia but also perched on the highest part of Charlottesville's biggest mountain.
Indeed, it’s impossible to miss from anywhere there’s a view of Carter's Mountain, as its atop the range that includes Monticello, Montalto, and the kid-friendly Carter Mountain Orchard.
County records show that Wood applied for a building permit on the 29-acre tract in 2006 with an estimated work valuation of $1.25 million. With the recent purchase of 272 acres below the mountain along Route 20, Wood says he now owns 700 acres of the mountain side.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for 30 years,” says Wood, resigned to the fact that passersby have begun to talk about the house. “And I’m not getting any younger.”
Wood, 70, recalls first falling in love with the site and its 360-degree views during a bike ride to the summit when he was 12 years old. At the time, Wood says, an on-site fire tower was active, and a forestry watchman lived in a cabin there during fire season.
Wood was finally able to buy the property in 1982. Since then, he says, he has dreamed of building his own, as he puts it, “cabin on the hill.” Wood has carved a two-mile private road from Scottsville Road and says he’s “changed the plans 15 times” on this “hobby,” without an architect, which should be finished in about 18 months. In addition, Wood says he's built the house to last, using concrete and steel in the construction.
Of course, even though it adjoins a longstanding cluster of cellphone, radio, and TV station transmitter towers and even thought it began rising when the economy began falling, not everyone is pleased.
“I have seen it, and I’m concerned about anything that detracts from the beauty of our mountains,” says County
Supervisor Dennis Rooker, who likens it to the prospect of Virginia Beach officials allowing oil platforms 100 yards from shore. “In my opinion," says Rooker, "our mountain viewsheds are an important natural resource, not only to the local citizens but as a significant tourist attraction.”
Indeed, Wood has built in the shadow of a mountaintop protection ordinance that has been discussed for years, an ordinance that would have prevented the construction of Wood’s dream house had it been adopted before he submitted his plans.
When Rooker was on the County Planning Commission in 1998, he says a mountaintop protection ordinance (which a special committee had taken three years to craft) was unanimously recommended before the Board of Supervisors split 3-3 on the proposal. When Rooker was later elected to the BOS in 2001, he brought up the proposal again, but Rooker says it was never voted on. In 2003, the BOS created the Mountaintop Overlay District committee (MOD), which presented a proposal in 2006 that was never adopted.
“Have I seen the house?” asks Piedmont Environmental Council officer Jeff Werner. “Who hasn’t?”
Werner says that regulating aesthetics was a “non-starter” for the Mountaintop Overlay District committee, so they tried to focus on what could be objectively applied in reviewing applications–- things like disturbance to streams and buffers, erosion control, constructing driveways on steep slopes, and accessibility by emergency vehicles.
Interestingly, Werner says it was philanthropist Fred Scott Jr., whose family owns a medieval-style castle on Afton Mountain called Royal Orchard, who proposed restrictions on the construction of ridge-top buildings “that would create a visible silhouette.”
For former County Supe Sally Thomas, who helped initiate the mountaintop protection discussion 16 years ago, the construction of Wood's house is cause for regret.
"That very visible building is a stark reminder of what was at stake and of the fact that we failed," says Thomas. "Now we'll have to see if large houses sticking up on our mountain tops leads the public to try to protect the mountains from development, or whether we'll just get used to them."
However, County Supe Ann Mallek tells the Hook that, just last year, zoning changes were made to the driveway requirements to control the manner in which steep slopes were to be accessed, changes that would have prohibited Wood from building his two-mile road had he not already started it just months before.
County Supe Lindsey Dorrier, who opposed the ordinance, says he hasn’t seen Wood’s house, but promised to look for it. Asked if he approved of houses being built on scenic mountaintops in general, Dorrier said, “Let's review the issues before we jump to conclusions.”
“Let’s see what it looks like once it's completed and landscaped,” says new County Supe Duane Snow, who has one of the best views of Wood’s new house from his Snow’s Garden Center on Avon Street Extended. “It's hard to be less attractive than all the towers that are located on the mountain.”
Indeed, over a dozen radio, TV, and cell phone transmitters have long crowded the ridge on Orchard property, and Wood claims he’s turned down lucrative offers to have communication towers placed on his site, which is about 140 feet higher than the current transmitter farm.
“But you think I’ll get credit for that?” he asks.
Asked why he chose to build on the site, knowing it would draw criticism, Wood makes no apologies.
“Because that view wasn’t anywhere else,” answers Wood. "That’s why I built it. And I was fortunate enough to be able to. Some people don’t like it, and that’s their opinion. ”
Still, the criticism frustrates Wood, who wonders why it's not leveled against others who've built on the Carter's Mountain range. As he speculates, Jefferson probably would have built on his site if it hadn't been so difficult at that time to traverse the higher elevation.
"I'm not trying to impress anyone. I love that land, and it's been a childhood dream to build a house there," Wood continues. "Freedom is important to me. If you want to do something in life, and you work hard and follow the rules, you have a right to do it."
According to Jay Schlothauer, the County’s director of inspections, the construction hasn’t sent up any red flags, though inspectors will continue to monitor the process.
In the meantime, Wood appears to be having some fun with the public reaction. One of the workers recently told Wood that some hikers had asked what was being built on the mountain, and asked Wood what they should say to the curious.
“Tell them I’m building a Wal-Mart up there,” said Wood.