Sour grapes: Neighbors fermenting over Kluge plan

In a normally quiet corner of southern Albemarle County, neighbors who own hundreds of acres– and those who own a couple of acres– came together June 4 united in a common cause: opposition to Patricia Kluge's vision.

Kluge, a former billionaire's wife turned vintner, wants to build a new subdivision. Dubbed Vineyard Estates, the 511-acre subdivision would combine vineyards, orchards, and meadows with 30 homesites.

And it's got a twist. In contrast to the 21-acre parcels that have become standard for million-dollar mansions in rural areas, the plan would interweave houses around vineyards on five- to seven-acre lots.

Kluge sees it as an innovative way to create a new rural community around a vineyard, but some neighbors see it as a dangerous precedent– and they're circulating petitions to stop it.

The idea stems from Kluge's desire to expand Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard from its current 50 acres ultimately to 200 acres.

"We asked a vineyard expert to do a soil study," says her husband and Kluge Estate CEO Bill Moses. "He picked three or four of the best areas to plant."

Moses points to an aerial map of the now-controversial parcel that's been logged and replanted. "The land is in terrible shape," he says. The couple wants to keep 313 acres in a preservation tract that would include 75 acres in new vineyards and another 80 acres for orchards and meadows.

It's on the remaining 176 acres that they want to pursue their unconventional idea.

"On the face of it, this doesn't meet most design standards of rural preservation development," says county senior planner Margaret Doherty. "In this case, five-acre lots surrounded by and interspersed with vineyards is a new model for the county. We need more information to make a decision."

But it's not the thinking outside the box that's going to be the biggest challenge for Vineyard Estates. The project is further hampered by the fact that 365 acres lie in an agricultural and forestal district, which prohibits subdividing into lots smaller than 21 acres.

By right, they could divide the land into fifteen 21-acre lots and 15 smaller lots, says Moses. Or, they could wait until the ag-forestal zoning expires in 2008 and divide the property into 43 lots.

The problem with the by-right plan is that it would preclude putting in the 75 acres of new grape plantings. "It's so important to know where to plant," explains Moses. "We've got to clear all the land and let it sit for a year. And then it's going to take me four years to get a mature yield. I don't want to wait until 2008 to plant and then have to wait until 2012 for a mature vineyard."

Moses took the idea of the vineyard subdivision to five of the county's six supervisors. "We were encouraged," he says. "I do think I've been a little misled."

Sally Thomas is one of the supes. "I was extremely enthusiastic," she confirms. "Someone was trying to do something truly agricultural, and there were many interesting aspects of the project."

However, Thomas says, "When he showed it to me, I didn't realize a portion was in ag-forestal. That makes a tremendous difference."

Lindsay Dorrier, chairman of the supervisors, also talked to Moses. "It's an ambitious project," he says. But with land still in an ag-forestal district, he says, "I don't know how you'll get around that."

Moses checked with the county and was told that a special use permit could be issued if the use furthers agricultural purposes. "I said I'm trying to do less than provided by right," he relates. "I asked, 'Don't you think this furthers agriculture in the county?'"

The agricultural and forestal committee apparently didn't, and in an April 28 meeting recommended a thumbs-down.

Those are the legal obstacles facing Vineyard Estates. Then there are the neighbors.

Virginia Klumpp and Bessie Carter attended the June 4 gathering at Antoinette Brewster's Lanark farm. Estimates on the number of attendees range from 50 to 100. Brewster did not return phone calls from The Hook.

"Those I've talked to are against it," says Carter, who lives at historic Redlands, about three miles away from Kluge's Albemarle House. "We'd like to see the whole area remain agricultural." (She notes that this has nothing to do with Kluge. "I have reason to like her personally," says Carter.)

"We are all scared to death," says Klumpp, whose family moved to the area in the 1950s. "Back then, the area was peopled with Bishops and Pattersons and Shiffletts who had been there for generations. We didn't want to come to some upscale, snazzy development. We came here because it was simple."

Klumpp is worried that Vineyard Estates would set a dangerous precedent for development both inside and outside the agricultural and forestal district. She's also concerned about traffic, water usage, and the "tract mansion look."

Both she and Carter would prefer that if Kluge must divide, she do so into the 21-acre by-right lots.

"Let's face it, no one's going to farm 21-acre lots," Moses counters. And he shudders at the thought of another Blandemar, the Ivy/North Garden subdivision of huge, million-dollar houses dotting the field on 21-acre lots.

Piedmont Environmental Council's Jeff Werner was at the neighborhood meeting, too. "The neighbors are extraordinarily concerned out there," he says. The PEC opposes the special use permit because, says Werner, "it will erode the integrity of the ag-forestal district."

On June 5, the day after the neighborhood meeting, Kluge and Moses wrote a letter to their neighbors explaining their plans and asking them to reserve judgment until they can present the project to the neighborhood.

Werner says it's being called the "Dear Peasant" letter around the 'hood.

"I'm a little disappointed in a lot of the neighbors," says Moses. "Not one called us up and said, 'We'd like to talk.'"

Kluge and Moses' planner, Frank Cox of the Cox Company, will meet with county planners to address the county's concerns on June 25, after The Hook's press time.

And Moses is braced for a Planning Commission public hearing, even though he fears, "It's going to be a large stink."

He believes that the bottom line is that his neighbors don't want any more houses, period.

"We're not developers in a vineyard's sheep's clothing," says Moses. "We're interested in building a winery. This is a nice transition from large, useless lots to something that promotes agriculture."

And he points out one last consideration. "We live across the street from this. We'd never do anything so deleterious to the area. We're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot."

Next week: Neighbors complain about Kluge's gourmet farm store in their midst.


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