[Un]easy easement: Mountain mansion building resumes in Ivy


Richard Selden granted the first conservation easement in the county and the state. Today he says he feels duped.

The neighbors counted a fleet of seven cement mixers headed up the mountain. Clearly, this was a project that was going to need a lot of concrete– although the lot in question is under a conservation easement that bans any additional houses on the property. Of course, that depends on your definition of "house."

The planned structure– a whopping 19,500-square-footer– got hit with a stop-work order September 18 because of fears that clearing for its construction would violate Albemarle County's oldest conservation easement.

However, the building permit has been reissued and construction continues. And that has the original conservation easement grantor, Richard Selden, scratching his head. 

"I think I was a fool," says Selden, who developed the Turner Mountain Woods subdivision in the early '80s and carved 11 parcels out of the original 103 acres.

According to Selden, county planning department staff persuaded him to put the 47-acre parcel in a conservation easement, and he did so in 1992 partly paying homage to his first wife, "ardent conservationist" Martha Selden.

"With hindsight, I've concluded that our objectives were doomed to fail and that my children and I were foolish to walk away from the wealth we could have reaped by creating extra lots on the 47-acre tract," Selden told the Albemarle Board of Supervisors November 7.

As far as the county is concerned, however, the massive house planned by John and Amy Harris will not exceed restrictions imposed by the easement, which allows one house and a maximum clearing of two acres of the forested tract. But what about the existing 4,200-square-foot dwelling?

Albemarle spokeswoman Lee Catlin says that the county attorney has already determined that if the 4,200-square-foot building is converted into an outbuilding, the new mansion can be built despite the easement.

Specifically, the county has determined that removing the stove in the existing house– a brick neo-Georgian with bevelled granite kitchen counters, hand-wrought stair rail, and oversized bathrooms– renders it an outbuilding.

"The county verified with a certified plat that the acreage to be cleared is within the two acres permitted," says Catlin. "That resolved that issue."

But it's the part about the stove that really raised some eyebrows.

"There's been some angst about that," Catlin concedes, "but that is the legal definition we have to work within."

 "I'm flummoxed by this well-held concept that a house is not a house if it doesn't have a stove," says Supervisor Sally Thomas, who represents the Samuel Miller District, which includes Ivy. She says she's spoken with attorneys from "California to New Jersey," and confirmed that, throughout the country, "without a stove, you don't have a legal house."

Incidentally, the 19,500-square-foot main structure may turn out to be the third largest house in the county, following Patricia Kluge's Albemarle House, with a total of 23,020 square feet (including a 5,100-square-foot basement), and Mark Fried's 22,594-square-foot chateau in White Hall.

Although the Harrises are good to go as far as Albemarle County is concerned, there's one more entity with a say in their project: the Public Recreational Facility Authority, which holds the conservation easement with the county.

"As a joint holder of the easement, they can take their own look to see if it meets the conditions of the easement," says Catlin.

"We haven't seen an outbuilding that size on an easement," say Authority chair Sherry Buttrick. "There was no consultation with us."

Buttrick says the Authority meets December 6 to decide whether it agrees with the county's legal opinion. And if the Authority decides it disagrees, it can either decide to do nothing– or hire an attorney.

"The Public Recreational Facility should have been brought in a lot earlier because they're co-easement holders," says Thomas. Another thing Thomas says she will do differently in the future is to keep a closer eye on conservation easement properties. "We're so proud of all the easements we have in the county," she says, "but we haven't made it a staff obligation to check on them."

Selden calls the county "seriously negligent" in its management of easements. "If  you're going to have conservation easements, by God you have to have the responsibility to enforce them."

He believes the Harrises' deep pockets– John Harris is the former CFO of an A-list private equity firm, the Carlyle Group– have cowed the county with threats of a lawsuit.

"I can imagine the county people are scared stiff," says Selden. "They don't have the guts to stand up and do the moral thing."

 "I don't believe anyone is making decisions based on that," counters Supervisor Thomas. "People are aware there might be a lawsuit, so they're making sure, as trite as it sounds, to dot i's and cross t's."

Thomas has met with the Harrises and says there's another option: "They've said they'd hate to tear down the old house," says Thomas, alluding to another way a wealthy couple could work around the easement. The Harrises did not return a phone call from the Hook.

Hank Martin believes Albemarle has gone too far in eroding property rights. "It sounds like Amy and John Harris did everything above board," he says, including obtaining verbal assurances from the county that they could build before buying the property. "After they made a $2.1 million purchase and are issued a building permit, you can't stop it because a bureaucrat doesn't know the rules." 

Several Turner Mountain residents said they are resigned that the property could contain two houses, despite the easement.

"The neighbors are upset because we moved in here with the feeling this was a preservation tract," says one resident. "I'm very disappointed with the county."

"I'm worried about it as a precedent," says another neighbor, "not just for Turner Mountain, but for everyone." This neighbor is sympathetic to the plight of the Harris family. "These are not terrible people," she says. "They were assured it was all right by their lawyer."

Selden is less sympathetic.

"Lawyers are very clever at figuring out loopholes," he says. "The Harrises, I don't think, are blameless. The Harrises are smart people. I don't think they should be in the dark as to what my intentions are. I don't feel very kindly toward them to run roughshod over my wishes."

When the conservation easement was granted– "the first in the whole state–" says Selden, "I felt proud of that. Now I feel sorry for the people I sold to who thought they were going to be protected."


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