What defines rural character, and who has the right to decide? The contentious debate over land use in western Albemarle’s countryside has of late centered on agricultural “event spaces”—farm buildings that are rented out for large parties, receptions, and weddings—and the fight pits neighboring landowners against each other in a clash of pastoral priorities. The most recent case involves the historic Wavertree Hall Farm property in Greenwood, nestled between Plank and Dick Woods Roads. When its new owners applied for a permit to hold special events in a large, unused outbuilding on the 150-acre parcel, surrounding residents rose in fierce opposition to the plan.
“This has been a wonderful, private, serene place to live, and these people coming in don’t give a darn about anybody,” said Clark Adams, 37-year resident of Kingsway Road, which bisects the Wavertree property and wraps around the potential event space site on three sides. “They’re going to ruin my property value. Would you want to buy this house if it was next door to something like that?”
“That” is an 8,000 square-foot riding ring that was part of the former Wavertree Hall Equestrian Center operation, now defunct. In late 2019 Scott Kelley and his family bought the Wavertree Hall Farm estate, which comprises an 1850s-era mansion called Bellevue plus a dozen or so smaller farm structures ranging from barns to tenant houses. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is under permanent conservation easement, so any alterations are strictly limited. Considering how best to maintain the various former equestrian buildings, the owners decided to renovate the cavernous riding ring to be able to rent it out for events.
“We’d been looking for a place down here for years and had been watching Bellevue in particular as it went on and off the market,” said Kelley, founder and CEO of Aetos Capital Real Estate, who also owns a home in Connecticut. Kelley is an active University of Virginia alum, serving on the McIntire School of Commerce Foundation Board, and his children and those of his partner Nancy Sanford are UVA grads or current students as well. “This is a perfect grand old estate that we’re redoing for our kids and grandkids over time. It was not an arbitrary choice; we have good friends and family in the area.”
Kelley and Sanford began exploring the possibility of repurposing the riding ring in the spring of 2020, working with county planners and state regulatory agencies to navigate the application requirements for holding “special events.” Though county rules allow up to 24 events per year for up to 150 guests with a special use permit, the owners decided to request approval for 18 events with a special exception that would allow up to 350 guests at four of the events per year.
The pair sent out a letter to fifty of the nearest neighbors in July, sharing the details of their plans. While they expected questions and perhaps even suggestions, they did not anticipate the visceral reaction of the surrounding community to the idea. “I would say we were naive,” said Kelley. “We thought, here’s a low capacity utilization for this vacant building, we’ll get the permit and fix it up to have a few events each year. Talk about swatting a hornet’s nest.”
“We immediately wrote back,” said Kari Browne, who lives at the end of Kingsway Road with her husband and her sister, Tracy, and Tracy’s husband. “We said, welcome to the neighborhood, but we prefer to keep the view to ourselves and oppose your plan. We offered to buy the ‘farm parcel’ [where the riding ring stands] from them, but they were not interested.” The sisters called a meeting of Kingsway Road residents at their house in July, and Browne said, “It became apparent very quickly that everybody was against this.”
The estate’s property features rolling hills and wooded groves traversed by Dollins Creek and surrounded by mountains, and the neighbors’ close proximity to the planned event space drives their concerns about its impact on their heretofore tranquil setting. They worry about traffic on the narrow, graveled Kingsway Road, about light and noise disturbances, about the event space’s drain on the local well system and its effect on their property values.
“The road is made for twelve houses, not for what could be up to 3,000 trips if you do the math over 18 events with 60-100 cars back and forth,” said Tracy Browne. “Kingsway Road is not built for that, and we all pay to maintain the road.”
Kari added concerns about the events themselves. “Where the parking lot is going to be situated [just north of the western end of Kingsway], there will be 70 cars parked at the bottom of my property on event weekends,” she said. “These events will be hosted during the nicest months, May through October. That’s the same time of year I’d like to enjoy my deck and my yard, but instead I’ll have to listen to Snoop Dog on a speaker.”
The riding ring building sits across the road from the home of Rory Carpenter and his wife Martha Bain, where they’ve lived for 30 years. They love the peace and beauty of the place and worry about the noise that events may generate. “The area is basically a bowl—I can hear people up at the stables talking, never mind loud music,” said Carpenter. “The event space will eliminate the entire reason we live here. I love weddings, but I don’t want them in my front yard 18 times a year.”
Clark Adams and his wife Peggy live directly west of the proposed venue, and the planned road down to the venue’s parking area will run along their fence line. “What bothers me the most is that they did not take into consideration how close their plans were to people and their families,” said Peggy. Clark summed the situation up this way: “The problem is they just bought the wrong farm,” he said. “They needed a farm without a neighborhood around it.”
Above all, neighbors worry that the rural character of the Greenwood/Afton area is being steadily eroded by commercial activity. Jolted in early 2020 by the sudden appearance of Hillcrest Vineyard’s massive tasting room and event space on Turk Mountain farther east on Dick Woods Road, local residents banded together via social media and email chains to oppose what they saw as business ventures that don’t comport with the idea of a dedicated rural area.
As the Wavertree plan began to take shape, the local resident network was spun up and an organized opposition mounted. Neighbors contacted local groups such as the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Greenwood Foundation, the Batesville Ruritans, and the Virginia Wildlife and Forestry Group to support their cause. More than one hundred people attended the November 30 virtual public meeting about the project to make the case against the venue plan.
“It seems to me that this is sort of a watershed moment for the county,” said Carpenter. “They have to make a decision and it will have a huge impact on the future of these types of events in this county. What do they want? Do they want to keep the natural beauty of this area, the natural peacefulness, the rural integrity, or do they want to increase taxation? Because we don’t know.”
Comparisons with the scale and intrusiveness of the massive new construction at Hillcrest Vineyard frustrate Kelley and Sanford. “This is not a big commercial enterprise,” said Kelley, “it’s apples and oranges with Hillcrest. The argument against [our project] has metastasized into ‘it’s going to change the rural nature of this part of the county,’ which, if we actually thought that was the case, we’d never do it.”
The virulent reaction to the proposed event venue blindsided Kelley and Sanford, who thought that their outreach efforts would be viewed as neighborly and transparent. “We knew it was a public process and we welcomed that,” said Sanford. “We hired an attorney to help us with the application and we were happy to work with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation—we wouldn’t think of doing it any other way.”
Many of the immediate neighbors are concerned that their property values will decline if the event venue is allowed, but Kelley challenges that claim. “Having a vibrant, high-end, occasionally used structure there as opposed to an abandoned old, falling-down barn is going to enhance their property value, not diminish it,” he said. “If somebody invests a bunch of money next door, that tends to be a good thing.”
Kelley and Sanford invited neighbors over to the property on November 20 for a meeting to describe their plans and to answer questions about the project, and attended a November 30 public meeting (held over Zoom) hosted by county planners that ran almost three hours. Though the proposed designs for the building are less intrusive than county regulations allow—e.g., estimated noise decibel levels are below the maximum defined by zoning rules—the neighbors who spoke at the two meetings uniformly objected to any event venue plan for the site.
The wall of opposition has vexed Wavertree’s owners. “We’re not saying that their concerns aren’t valid,” said Sanford, “but it seems that there’s a small, very vocal group that doesn’t want to hear about what we’re doing to try to mitigate those concerns and how we’re working with authorities to advise us. Starting months ago, we had VDOT come out, we had a soil study done, we had an acoustic engineer do extensive testing. We know we’ll have to put in a new well, and we’re happy to pay for all of the maintenance of the road should this project go through, but none of this seems to matter to them.”
Sanford may be correct on this point, as several neighbors have said that their goal is to stop the project entirely. “We’re hoping to make it as difficult as possible so it doesn’t go through,” said Clark Adams. “To us, the whole thing is negative. It doesn’t matter what they do, we don’t want [the event venue] at all, that’s the bottom line.” Yard signs urging “No Wavertree Events,” both printed and handmade, line Plank Road and Dick Woods Road along stretches near the property.
For Kelley and Sanford, the acrimony has crossed the line from procedural to personal. “We’ve been surprised at the anger directed at us personally,” said Kelley. “One neighbor dumped six bags of trash in our creek, and people are making ugly remarks on social media about us and what I do for a living. One day when Nancy was out walking along the road, a pickup truck swerved toward her and the driver yelled, ‘Go back to New York!’ so now she’s afraid to walk around here. It’s nasty and it’s not right.”
While a few area residents quietly welcomed Kelley and Sanford to the neighborhood in the summer and others expressed appreciation for the November get-together, the most vocal opposition continues to cast them as interlopers. “We’ve seen this before,” said Tracy Browne. “People come from metro areas down here and buy a pretty place to open up a winery or distillery. I call it ‘carpet-bragging’ because they’re not here full time, they do this so they can go home and brag about their little winery down in Virginia.”
After the November 30 public meeting, the owners decided to take a pause. “We’ve put the project on hold for now and we’re considering our options,” said Kelley. He and Sanford are hoping that a cooling off period may help as neighbors digest the plan’s details. In response to some of the concerns raised in recent months, the owners have shifted the location of the designated parking area, changed the direction and number of amplified speakers, committed to shielded lighting, and proposed valet parking or shuttle bus arrangements for larger events.
Because Wavertree Hall has no current agricultural operation, its owners are applying for a special use permit to host special events under an Albemarle Comprehensive Plan provision that encourages “hosting events at historic properties for the public to share the enjoyment of the County’s historic resources and rural viewsheds.” However, Kelley and Sanford could pivot to an agriculture-oriented plan such as a “farm winery” and proceed by right, which could change the day-to-day experience of the neighbors far more than the current proposal.
Under state law revisions enacted in 2007, farm wineries, distilleries, and breweries may hold special events without county Board of Supervisors approval as long as they comply with zoning regulations. These types of operations can host an unlimited number of events per year for up to 200 people each, and they are required to have some form of tasting room with regular hours open to the public—many are open most days of the year.
While neighbors have conveyed their displeasure to Wavertree Hall Farm’s owners, their ire may be better directed at state officials for passing laws that allow and encourage rural event venues in the name of “agritourism.” “Event venues are becoming ubiquitous and the question is, will there be enough pushback from citizens in situations like this that would cause the Virginia General Assembly to rethink the legislative opening they created,” said Rex Linville of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Even apart from the farm winery issue, Linville said there have been other event-space-only proposals in the county that have been shelved due to neighbor protests, citing plans at farms in Free Union and on Dick Woods Road as recent examples. “One of the reasons that the rural area of Albemarle county is a beautiful place to hold a wedding is that so much of it is protected,” he said. “There is a tipping point where we could lose that rural character and nature, and at this point the county has very little say in that.”
While they figure out their next steps for Wavertree, Kelley and Sanford are busy renovating Bellevue and the surrounding gardens and guest houses with a nod toward period style and furnishings, hoping to settle into their new digs post-pandemic. “We are so excited about this house,” said Sanford. “Our focus is on being here with our kids, and we’re really looking forward to things like entertaining family and friends on football weekends and being a part of the community. It’s such a beautiful place.”