A timber harvest operation is slated to begin soon on the upper portion of Bucks Elbow Mountain, which rises above Mint Springs Park northwest of Crozet. Mitchell Carr, who has owned the 300-acre parcel of forestland directly north of Emerald Ridge since the 1960s and has always intended to log it, says the time is right. “The emerald ash borer is killing all the ash up there, and if we can harvest them before the root system dies then we may get some good regeneration,” said Carr. “Otherwise, all those dead trees will be a tremendous fire hazard on the mountain, just a tinderbox ready to go off.”
The outline of Carr’s property resembles a huge, leaping whale with its tail section pointing southwest toward the park, and the tract is visible from many parts of Crozet. While Carr has delineated three harvest stands along its northern, eastern, and southern edges (see map below), a wide, 92-acre swath across the middle is designated as a Habitat Protection Area and cannot be disturbed. The parcel is rocky and steep—the long ridge that forms its northernmost boundary rises 1,100 feet in altitude in just under 3,000 feet of terrain—and the trees there are mostly oak and hickory varieties, white ash, and yellow poplar.
The long haul
Carr’s plan to harvest the timber has for decades been hindered by a thorny problem: the land has no public road frontage, and thus no way to transport logs off the property. For many years Carr tried sweet-talking his neighboring landowners, offering financial or land deals in exchange for permission to cross their properties to reach Mint Springs Road. “We got a call in 2002 or so, asking if we’d allow them to log and bring it through our property,” said Brian Day, Emerald Ridge resident. “We said we had no interest in doing that at all, and of course cutting down trees [to make a haul road] is against our neighborhood covenants.”
Nearby residents in Saddle Hollow Farm (just east of Emerald Ridge) were dubious as well and similarly rejected Carr’s overtures. “Mr. Carr’s property manager approached us and asked about getting access to the upper parcel,” said Charles Greenhut, who has lived on Saddle Hollow Road for seven years. “The plan was to come up through the combination of my neighbor’s yard and my property, but we were cautious. Ultimately it was not a very attractive offer to us and we were perfectly fine keeping the trees on our land intact.”
Finally, in 2019, Carr was able to purchase two adjoining parcels that stacked northward up from Saddle Hollow Road. That acquisition left just one 300-yard stretch of land remaining between his new road access and his timber stands, and that stretch belonged to Victor Luftig and his wife. “Almost twenty years ago, Carr got in touch with us directly and tried to offer us money or land in exchange for the portion of our property that he wanted to cross,” said Luftig. “He said he wanted to build homes for his two sons and that he had no commercial interest in the land.”
The Luftigs were not persuaded that the transaction would be in their interest and declined, thinking the matter closed. “Earlier this year we were shocked to discover that Carr had just gone ahead and built a road across the part of our property farthest from our home,” said Luftig. “He wrote to us after the fact asserting the same right-of-way that he obviously didn’t feel sure about years ago.” The bulldozed haul road now connects Carr’s southeast timber stand to his own parcels below.
In pursuing this latest strategy, Carr is banking on language contained in the original property deed that first conveyed the land to Crozet’s Wayland family of orcharding fame back in 1898—a vague but intentional requirement that “a right of way is expressly reserved through the tract … in favor of the purchaser or purchasers of any other part of the ‘Big Survey’ … to be located at such point as shall be practicable and at the same time as little injurious as possible.” The “Big Survey” is how the original 4,000 acres of mountainside was referred to in the 1800s. Since then more than 100 property transfers (called “conveyances”) have subdivided the original tract, many containing the same right of way language.
In 2006, Carr paid tens of thousands for a formal survey of the entire mountainside to map out exactly where the rights-of-way to and from his forested parcel might lie. This was an “overwhelming” task according to the surveyor, David L. Collins. “I’ve been doing this since 1972, and that was the most difficult survey I’ve ever done,” said Collins of the job he did while working for John McNair & Associates. “It was an incredible amount of research work to track back those parcels and see how they were deeded. For parcels that didn’t have public road frontage, there was a ‘blanket easement’ in the deed to get to a road.”
Collins followed old roadbeds “not even wide enough for a horse to get through” that crisscrossed the mountain, and he and McNair mapped out three distinct rights of way from Carr’s property (see map below). One access route runs west of Emerald Ridge and through part of Mint Springs Park, one to the east through Henley Forest property, and the third—and shortest—heads straight south.
Last fall, Collins and Carr walked what looked like an old roadbed on the eastern edge of Victor Luftig’s property and sited Carr’s haul road there, within a shaded area of the map that defines the blanket easement. Collins stands by his research, but Luftig said, “There is no right-of-way for that property in our deed, nor did it show up in the title chain.
“We communicated our distress to the county,” said Luftig, “but were told that the county doesn’t involve itself in disputes between property owners and that we’d have to take up the matter in court, which we haven’t the means to do.” Beyond the right-of-way issue, he said, “We think his logging the area would cause environmental degradation as his acreage is steeper than the ‘critical slope’ the county identifies as a concern for erosion.”
The forest for the trees
On a clear day, looking from the entrance of Western Albemarle High School toward Old Trail, one can make out a cell tower halfway up Bucks Elbow Mountain, and Carr’s land sprawls to the north and west from there. Carr bought the cell tower property to run the timber haul road through, but it’s also the site of a 2018 plane crash in which Carr’s son Kent was killed. Passing by the site on his way up and down the mountain is a “two-edged sword,” he said. “Of course it’s stressful, but I like owning it and being able to come and go as I please and to be custodian over it. But it does cut both ways.”
Now that the haul road is in place, the harvesting operation is imminent. Though Virginia landowners are not required to get a permit per se to log their own forests, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) does require inspections of the site by forestry officials within the first 20 days of the start of a harvesting operation and every 45 days thereafter until the operation is closed. Inspectors check for stream water management and erosion issues and help guide the operation in a sustainable way for the forest.
“I worry about the viewshed for the entire community,” said Day in Emerald Ridge, “and I’m very concerned about the runoff. I am sure it will be a clearcutting operation, and the stream in the hollow of our property will likely get plugged up and could cause flooding. It’ll be a great big hole in the forest, a giant eyesore on the view from Crozet.”
Bucks Elbow Mountain residents are also worried about the effects of logging vehicles moving through the narrow neighborhood roads. “We hope any operation will be conducted safely—there are families with children on Saddle Hollow and Mint Springs Roads,” said Greenhut, whose property borders Carr’s timber stand and is near the area that will be used for staging and processing logs. “The grades are extremely steep, and the lines of sight are extremely poor.”
Richard Defibaugh built his house on the mountain in 1982 and also declined a recent appeal from Carr to pass through his property before Carr acquired the cell tower parcel next door. Defibaugh’s father and brother were loggers and he is familiar with the tandem axle trucks many modern harvesters use. “My wife is scared to death of this operation,” he said. “She is terrified she’s going to meet a logging truck on the road and go into a ditch. If you live in this area you know to find a nearby driveway to go up when you meet another vehicle. Those trucks are going to tear up the roads we have up here.”
Carr’s Forest Stewardship Management Plan (a document that is encouraged, but not required, by the VDOF) calls for a “shelterwood harvest” where trees are removed in a series of partial cuts, leaving some of the canopy intact while thinning below to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor so seedlings can grow from the seeds of older trees. Bucks Elbow Mountain’s appearance for Crozet residents both near and far will depend on the percentage of trees remaining.
“We’re going to do a timber stand improvement cut on only about 40 to 60 acres [in the southeast stand],” said Carr. “We don’t believe in clearcutting hardwoods, and if you clear cut on steep ground you have a real erosion problem. So, we’ll do it by hand—you get down on your knees and notch it and cut it by hand with a chainsaw—and use a small skidder with cable hooks to pull it out.” As for the percentage of trees that will be logged, Carr said it will vary.
“The plan is to remove the trees that are dead, dying, or diseased,” he said, “as well as some of the invasive species up there. There’s a lot of wind-blown downed trees and a lot that have been damaged by lightning or ice, some massive big old trees that are 20 years old that have gone down. It’s good forest management to get those out.”
Carr’s management plan recommends that up to 80% of the stand be cut—from more than 100 square feet of tree coverage per acre down to 20 or 30 square feet per acre—but Carr says they’ll cut only the ash at that rate. “We will not take it down to less than 50% on any of the stands except for small parcels of, say, five to eight acres where it’s nothing but ash, where we’d take all of that.” The plan recommends harvesting the remaining canopy trees in 2030 or 2035, which would then allow the advanced hardwood regeneration to grow.
Some neighbors question why Carr insisted on constructing the haul road through Victor Luftig’s property now, after years of asking permission from neighbors. “If he really had the right of way back then [in 2006], why didn’t he just do it then?” said Day. “We have a homeowners’ association but it’s only 28 families, and who can fight him? I’m just guessing that Carr is in a financial position to out-lawyer what any of us could afford.”
Others wonder about his ultimate motives. “I got the feeling this was not really about logging,” said Defibaugh, “because the property was logged some years back and they came out over Henley’s orchard, and I was wondering why they couldn’t use that same right of way now. If his goal is to divide the property up and to sell it off, then he’d need more than one access road, so I had the feeling he was trying to gain multiple access roads so the county would allow him to divide it up.”
Carr says the much longer Henley right-of-way was not viable for this project. “The eastern route through Henley forest would have been way too far to go for this harvest,” he said. “It’s much farther to get to the staging site [along the property’s southern edge], and that road would have to be cleared of fallen trees and washouts.” Though his 300-acre property is currently listed for sale at over $1 million, a housing development there is not in the cards because the whole parcel is in a permanent VDOF conservation easement.
“It’s a pretty mountain, and we’ve enjoyed having it and have spent a lot of time hiking it,” said Carr. After sixty years on Bucks Elbow, he says he is mindful of neighbors’ concerns but resolute about the validity of his rights to access his property. “We have three deeded rights of way to the land that I own,” he said. “It is what it is.”