Poison Ivy: If you build it, they will scream
"Growth may be inevitable, but ugliness is not."From the Scenic Virginia preamble.
Ivy cherishes the notion that it's a rural community. The scenery along Route 250 west is mostly white-fenced fields and woods. Its subdivisions are hidden from 250, unlike the more obvious sprawl attacking Crozet, its designated-growth neighbor to the west.
The village of Ivy is nothing more than a post office, a nursery, a couple of gas stations and Duner's, a pricey, culinary oasis for affluent country folk.
Ivy is also a sanctuary for Edin and Vesna Kajan, who came to Charlottesville four years ago as refugees from the horrors of genocide in Bosnia. They bought a piece of land in the community and savored the American dream of owning their own home.
Unfortunately, their dream house dismays some of their Ivy neighbors, who claim it's changed the landscape of rural Route 250 west past the Ivy Depot.
And if the Kajans' boxy, ultra-contemporary house isn't enough to shake up the locals, across the street, high on a hill, another, more traditional, new house with orangish brick and a purplish roof is causing consternation.
The result? A lot grumbling by Ivyites who object to the community's new look.
Ivy artist Amy Varner is more sanguine than many about the new houses. "Ivy obviously needs an architectural review board," she jokes.
Others aren't joking.
Although Tom Hutchinson, president of the Ivy Community Association, thinks there's enough government as it is, the ICA is working to have Ivy designated a historic district by the state. If that happens, there will be even more restrictions on what can be built.
"We have a village called Ivy, and that village is less attractive as a result of those houses," says Hutchinson categorically.
In Albemarle County's comprehensive plan, Ivy has a rural designation. That means no new subdivisions à la Crozet will be sprouting up in the countryside. In fact, Hutchinson once memorably proclaimed, "Ivy is not Crozet."
Like the nearby Lewis "stop the 1,200-car monster" Mountain neighborhood, many Ivyites frown on change. When Faulconer Construction wanted to build a heavy equipment storage yard in Ivy last year, the Ivy Community Association whipped out their checkbooks, hired a lawyer, and so far have stalled the company's plans.
With its good schools and relatively short distance to Charlottesville, Ivy has become a desirable and expensive address for those who want to enjoy country living with nearby city amenities.
Although Ivy is not a designated growth area, it inevitably will be affected by the growth down the road in Crozet.
Two years ago, a committee called Scenic 250 was formed to battle VDOT's plans to widen 250. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject the proposal, and BOS chair Sally Thomas thinks that unless Albemarle County requests that 250 west be widened, it's unlikely to happen.
At one time, Route 250 was designated a scenic highway, but that designation was eliminated in 1991 when the county went to regulating entrance corridors instead.
"You used to drive from Charlottesville to Crozet and not see houses," says one Turner Mountain resident, who did not want to be named.
"Now," he complains, "I'm one of many Ivy residents who are not happy with the ruination of the grace of the area."
The road up above
Land in Ivy is scarce. New houses typically start at $400,000; finding anything for less than $300,000 is rare, if not impossible. One builder grouses that you can't find a lot in Ivy.
But the Kajans did. A piece of property just west of Ivy on the south side of Route 250 bore a Virginia Land Company sign for several years. Brokers say its proximity to Route 250 and sharply sloping yard limited interest in the property.
For the Kajans, it was perfect. Edin Kajan works for C. W. Hurt Contractors, owned by one of the county's largest developers, Dr. Charles Hurt, who is also the owner of Virginia Land Company.
Construction on the property began and then quickly stalled in April 2001 when the project was slapped with a stop-work order because the house did not sit the required 75 feet back from the highway.
C.W. Hurt Contractors built the house and certainly has experience with county zoning. However, that's not where Kajan places blame.
"I am responsible," he says. "We came from Bosnia, and the United States is like another planet."
The house's foundation was seven-and-a-half feet too close to the road, says Kajan, and the county was not swayed by his plea that it was an honest mistake.
Kajan had to tear out the finished basement and move it back– to the tune of $17,000. And that was not his only brush with county rules.
When he tried to clear out his property's jungle-like growth toward Little Ivy Creek at the back of the property, he ran afoul of the county's 100-foot buffer around the creek. "They forced me to plant 100 trees and pay a $500 fine," he says, but he adds, "I'm not complaining."
Edin Kajan, who studied architecture in Bosnia, designed the Ivy house. He describes its style as "very contemporary." From the outside, it looks like a box. Inside, it's airy and open. But that minimalist elegance is not visible from the road, where passersby see only a metallic roof.
"What is that, a warehouse?" asks Ivy resident Marion Rothman. "It looks like a factory. From the road, it's very unattractive."
"It's atrocious," says a longtime Ivy homeowner. "All you can hope for is a major flood."
Kajan notes that his house is not in a flood zone, and he says the house turned out exactly the way he wanted. "So many people thought it was an office," he says.
His wife, Vesna, concedes their residence is unusual for Charlottesville, "but I don't think it's weird."
Both Kajans say they're not bothered by the negative reaction. They're just happy to finally be in their 2,600-square-foot home, and, as former city dwellers, they're busy adjusting to life in the country.
They've had a visit from a skunk, and Edin had never cut grass before. But they're philosophical. "It's a new life. I'm not complaining. We like it."
Dream House #2
When Gloria Mayo saw the symmetrical old oak tree back in 1977, she knew she'd found the spot she wanted to call home. She and her husband, Menachim, bought 43 acres on 250 west and built a home they called "Fields of Boaz."
Twenty-five years later, she says, "I got old and didn't want to deal with 43 acres. I want to have fun." So the Mayos kept five acres with the oak overlooking 250 and sold the other 37 acres to architect/builder Vito Cetta's company, Weather Hill Homes, for $1 million.
Menachim Mayo designed their new 4,700-square-foot house, and Cetta "cleaned it up," she says.
"I'm personally reasonably pleased," says Cetta. "I'd do some things differently if I were building it for me, but I feel that way with every house I build."
Gloria Mayo is thrilled with the custom house. "It's us," she says.
Some Ivy architectural critics aren't as thrilled. Some locals have dubbed the mostly traditional brick structure with its two distinctive chimneys rising up in the center the "horn house."
"What are the horns for?" asks a woman who has lived nearby in Glenaire, a subdivision of mostly ranch houses, since it was built in the 1960s. "No one needs two fireplaces that close."
In fact, the faux chimneys do not serve any fireplaces. "That's just for dress-up," Gloria Mayo explains.
"It's just inexcusable," fumes the Glenaire neighbor. "There should be some kind of architectural review board."
And why is this Ivy doyenne so vehement about the house? "It's bad architecture," she contends. "We have to look at it everyday."
Gloria Mayo couldn't care less about whether people like her house.
"It's my house, my property, and I paid for it," she says.
Mayo doesn't find the industrial-style house of the Kajans, her neighbors across the road, to her taste. "I don't care for what I call 'plastic houses,'" she says, "but if it makes those people happy.... I would never build a house like that, but they'd probably never build a house like mine."
The Mayo and Kajan residences have their defenders. Custom home builder Frank Purstell, who lives down the road on Turner Mountain, says, "These houses are what people want. It's their taste."
Another Turner Mountain resident isn't so generous. "I don't see why people have to take their taste and shove it down the throats of everybody driving down 250," he says.
"They're certainly noticeable," says Supervisor Sally Thomas, who also lives in Ivy.
"I have a great interest in what things look like from the road," she adds. Thomas is a founding member of Scenic Virginia, the organization whose preamble declares, "Growth may be inevitable, but ugliness is not."
Still, do Ivy residents really want to regulate taste?
"I don't think we have the authority to tell someone what an individual home can look like from the road," says Thomas.
Yet one more Ivyite chimes in on the flap over the industrial house and the horn house: "I say bravo. Screw the whole Jeffersonian and colonial look. If people want to build their dream house, I think it's great."
After all, there's one great lesson in America: you can't regulate taste– unless you live in a subdivision or a historic district.
Grabbing a piece of country living
Whenever a "build to suit" sign pops up, some Ivy residents wince, fearing a new subdivision– like the one they probably live in.
Most rural subdivisions are small. "We're
not talking Forest Lakes," says Albemarle planning director Wayne Cilimberg of the more than 1,100-house goliath near the airport. "Nothing close to that," he says, "is permitted in Ivy."
Instead, parcels of land available to build new houses come from the division of properties like the 43-acre Fields of Boaz, which was split into four parcels. A sampling of current offerings:
Little Ivy Farm, a seven-acre parcel carved out of Fields of Boaz with a "build to suit" sign is listed at $699,000, according to agent Sally Du Bose.
Robin Hill, a 14-acre estate– probably more aptly known as Vulture Hill because of the carrion eaters that roosted there over the winter and kept carcasses on 250 picked clean– also was purchased by Weather Hill Homes. Two of the four lots are available for building, and these lots don't come cheap.
Lot 1 on Robin Hill, consisting of 4.5 acres, is listed at $295,000 about $65,000 an acre. The two acres on lot 4, right on Route 250, are offered for $160,000, a whopping $80,000 an acre. Alternatively, you could just buy the existing main house and its guest house, pool, and tennis court on five acres for $795,000.
And then there's The Rocks, the largest development looming on the Ivy horizon. The 640-acre parcel, located off I-64 on Dick Woods Road, consists of 39 lots, and is giving NIMBY fits to its neighbors in Rosemont, a pricey subdivision of massive houses.
Development of The Rocks was approved by the county 10 years ago, and Hiram Ewald, one of its owners, expects construction to start once some "minor engineering" details are worked out.
Rosemonters retort that the private road and bridge on the property to serve 39 new homes are substandard, as well as being in the 100-year floodplain. Mark Graham, director of engineering and public works, says the road plan will be a critical part of county approval.
An old slave cemetery and "Poe's Cottage" are other concerns The Rocks' neighbors have about its development.
Ewald says that Poe's Cottage, where legend has it Poe wrote The Raven, is just that, a legend. "I checked with three historical societies," he explains.
As for the slave cemetery, "We can't find it– we tried," says Ewald. "They're anecdotal stories. There was no mention of it when we bought this 30 years ago or when this was approved by the county 10 years ago."
The development's lots range in size from two to 106 acres, according to Cilimberg, and the project includes a preservation tract. The houses will be clustered, which is encouraged by the county, rather than spread out across the property.
"The part that doesn't fit the comprehensive plan," notes Sally Thomas, "is more growth in rural areas."
Two other Ivy estates will not go the development route. Verulam Farm nearly became a golf course last year when a group of high rollers including developer Hunter Craig and CNET founder Halsey Minor decided that– Farmington, Keswick, and Glenmore aside– Charlottesville needed more golfing options. That plan, with local memberships starting at $70,000, fell through after September 11.
The 550-acre Verulam estate, listed for $6.8 million, is now under contract and should close by the end of July. Attorney Steve Blaine won't reveal the purchaser's name, but says the new owner plans to live there and to put Verulam's division rights into a conservation easement, good news for those who feared the estate would be turned into 33 McMansions.
In the same neighborhood, word among realtors is that Ivy Creek Farm, used by Seagram executives in the days before the Vivendi quagmire, is also under contract. The approximately 240-acre estate was quietly "snatched up" without being listed, according to a knowledgeable source, reportedly by someone who wants to live there, not subdivide.
As people continue to stream into Albemarle County, Ivy will find it more and more challenging to maintain its rural flavor.
"Ninety-nine out of a hundred people say 'I don't want things to change,'" says Vito Cetta, who also lives in Ivy.
An architect and builder, he admits, "Every single thing I do changes the landscape. The population here increases by 2,000 people a year. People can't expect things to stay the same."
And if Cetta has his way with a condominium project on Route 250 past Bellair Market, a new stoplight will join three others added to 250 in the past few years, further urbanizing that stretch of road and affecting thousands of drivers daily.
But Ivyites seem determined to keep things the same, and because it's not a designated growth area, factors such as traffic and water and aesthetics– continue to be issues every time a new house is built.
Water, in particular, has been a problem for Ivy because it's not on the county water supply nor will it be added, because water and sewer hookups encourage growth.
The recent chronic water shortage facing the 150-plus homes in Peacock Hill, an Ivy subdivision built in the 1970s, is probably one of the area's best kept secrets at least to newcomers, who weren't always told that water sometimes had to be trucked in to the neighborhood. That problem plagued Peacock Hill until two new wells were drilled last year.
Now with the current drought depleting groundwater, whether there will even be water there to drill remains questionable.
Albemarle County currently is espousing the neighborhood model that emphasizes walkability between home, shopping, and work. But even the best-laid plans can go awry. While the goal is that 80 percent of development take place in designated growth areas, the reality, according to Thomas, is that it's more like 60 percent.
And on the large properties around the county, every 21 acres represent a division right, and those division rights are sitting out there "like a fungal growth," says Thomas.
"If everyone utilizes the zoning already on land, we can have hundreds of thousands of people build here," she warns.
The two new houses on Route 250 outside Ivy that have raised eyebrows could be harbingers of the radically altered landscape that growth and division rights could bring.
Tom Hutchinson jokes that his first preference would be to "incorporate Ivy and secede from the state." As a similar plan didn't work very well in the 1860s, perhaps a historical district will prove to be a better vehicle for resisting change.
Otherwise, goodbye rural Virginia, hello sprawl.