NEWS- Dueling lawyers: Authority balks at mega-mansion guest house


Can this "guest house" be saved?

A little-known group has been thrust into the fray about whether mega-mansion-builders John and Amy Harris will be able to keep their current abode as a guest house– or be forced to tear it down.


Along with the Board of Supervisors, which appoints it, the volunteer-run Public Recreational Facilities Authority co-holds the conservation easement on a 47-acre Ivy area tract where the Harrises are building a new house sized at 19,500 square feet, the third largest in Albemarle history.

The problem: the easement limits the property to just one residence, and there's already a 4,200-square-foot house there. The Harrises' lawyer says they checked with Albemarle County before shelling out $2.1 million to buy the place, and were assured that if they simply removed the stove from the existing house, it would be considered a mere "outbuilding" allowed under the easement, and could be used as a guest house.

The Authority, however, disagrees. After its meeting December 6, the group fired off a letter taking issue with the county's interpretation– and seeking funds to hire a lawyer.

At the meeting, original developer and easement grantor Richard Selden brought some paperwork that he'd dug up from his files when he was setting up the Turner Mountain Woods subdivision. Among the correspondence was a January 27, 1992, letter from Albemarle County senior planner Richard Tarbell asking the neighborhood to ban  "guest houses" in the subdivision's covenants.

"Mr. Tarbell was insistent," says Selden. "That was a major surprise to everybody, including me."

Authority chairman Sherry Buttrick and vice chairman Joseph Cochran wrote the supervisors December 7 asking them to consult with staff and with the Authority to "arrive at a shared interpretation of the easement."

The Authority needs its own lawyer because the county attorney's office has already notified the group that it has a conflict of interest and can't advise the Authority, and it's issued a differing opinion: that the existing brick house minus its stove can be considered acceptable under the easement.  

"I certainly want to hear from an unbiased source," says Cochran. "And it seemed to be the consensus in my group that we're concerned about the interpretation."

Last month, Selden told the supervisors that he felt "foolish" for agreeing to an easement that wasn't being enforced; but after the Authority meeting, he feels more optimistic.

"I was gratified that the Authority agrees there's a problem," says Selden. "How they will fix it, I have no idea."

"It is a little awkward," says Supervisor Sally Thomas, who represents the Ivy area."One reason you have two holders of easements is that you have two sets of eyes monitoring it, sort of a fail-safe."

The matter won't be taken up by the Board of Supervisors before its January 9 meeting, and construction continues on the new Harris home. John Harris, the former CFO of a leading private equity fund called the Carlyle Group, declined comment for this article.

Property rights activist Hank Martin, who says 35 people showed up for the inaugural meeting of his grassroots organization "Forever Albemarle" on December 4, sympathizes with both sides. He says both parties approached the county "in good faith" and says it would require "the wisdom of Solomon" to straighten out the situation.

"The entire disconnect and breakdown is in the multiple levels of bureaucracy," says Martin. "And it seems like to me when the Harrises approached the county, they should have gotten an informed opinion."

Martin also wonders, "As a taxpayer, how much of my money is being wasted in court over matters like this?"

Sally Thomas offers little comfort there. "I think we probably will fund an attorney," she says. And should the Authority's legal counsel differ from the county's, she says, "It's conceivable we could be paying for someone to sue us."


Prior stories:

September 20, 2007: "Woods wrangle: Mansion prompts conservation snit"

November 29, 2007: "Uneasy easement: Mountain mansion building resumes in Ivy"