As disputes between landowners and potential developers over how best to use rural land in western Albemarle become ever more bitter and divisive, one man is striking a conciliatory stance. Instead of seeding mansions across the 400 acres he purchased northeast of Batesville, Steve Morales wants to grow a community. “I’ve had a desire for the past twenty years to create a place of healing and restoration for people,” said Morales, “so in the back of my mind I’ve always kept an eye out for a farm homestead that I could share.”
The place he found is called Israel Mountain, named after the family of Michael Israel who transplanted to the area from New York in the 1700s and later fought in the Revolutionary War. Situated between Plank Road to the south, Pounding Creek Road to the north, and Bundoran Estates to the east, the property’s rolling hillsides have been harvested for timber—300 acres in hardwoods and the rest in loblolly pine—for the last three generations. In 2017, Morales saw the parcel’s potential to help him live out his vision and formed the Israel’s Gap Community Fund to buy it.
A graduate of UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce who is now COO of a demographics forecasting firm, Morales is less focused on building fancy amenities on the mountain than he is on the people who will share ownership and work the land. Hiking along a ridge on what he calls the “930 trail,” as it maintains a steady 930-foot elevation, Morales acknowledged that his approach is unorthodox. “A friend of mine described a planned venture of his where he would spend years doing analyses before purchasing the land,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m doing it the other way around.” With land already underfoot, Morales decided to ask people directly: what would you like to do here?
A Facebook post in late March announced the inception of the Israel Mountain Adventure Community and asked interested folks to fill out an online survey. The plan describes a “transformation of this extraordinary property from briars and thistles to trails, gardens, crops, activity centers and so much more.” A “smallholder” lease and ownership model will allow people to gain access to the land to pursue their passion—gardening and farming plots of land, making use of the trail system to forage, hike, or birdwatch, and learning and interacting with a community of other outdoors-lovers.
The response to Morales’ post was overwhelmingly positive. More than 600 people filled out the interest survey to learn more and to express their preferences on activities such as hiking, camping, and foraging, and on class offerings ranging from purifying water and identifying plants to woodworking and archery. “I basically said which of these would you like to do, and lots of people said ‘I want to do all of them, let me pick more!’” said Morales. He also hopes to allow non-profit groups to enjoy the land and add their expertise to the community.
A few respondents raised questions about the Adventure Community’s focus, such as whether it is a communal housing development or a religious cult, and whether there will be a large event space for “agritourism” events like large wedding receptions or plans for organized sports leagues and ball fields on the property. The answer to all of these is no. “We have enough wineries and breweries,” said Morales. “This is really a farm community made up of people who want to engage with the land and evolve and grow. It’s about a mindset, where everyone will be present and can be real with each other.”
The survey responses also revealed that the features most important to those who would be among the community’s earliest members were also the simplest, meaning that Morales may be able to open the land to its enthusiasts soon. “People said they’d like to build trails, nice bathrooms, places to have a picnic,” he said. “They don’t want a clubhouse and a pool, they’d rather have a large community garden to tend, trails to explore, and to build an activity barn where they can learn farming and outdoor skills.”
Morales says he understands that some may question why anyone would pay a fee to be part of something like this. “Of course, there are thousands of acres where people can go hike,” he said. “but it’s the whole idea of being part of an intentional community, having others to build this with, that’s the important part.” He plans to also offer equity shares in the ownership of Israel Mountain Farm as a way to raise funds to buy heavy farming and trail-clearing equipment that will benefit all members.
“Some people ask, well, what’s the ROI [return on investment] going to be, but to me that’s not the most important part, it’s about people,” he said. “That’s how I figured out this model—joint ownership, farm tenants, no debt, own everything. Then it shouldn’t fail.”
As he walked through a freshly-cleared meadow and gazed up at the five-year growth in the pine stands along the mountainside, Morales was full of ideas and optimism. “I want to plant wildflowers for sure,” he said, “and I’d like to do a spring and fall bird survey each year so people can identify what they see. Imagine a field of corn that the community works on together, and at the end of the day you take home fresh corn that you helped grow.”
While Morales will help build the community and curate his vision, he knows that Israel Mountain Farm will evolve into what each person needs from it. “This is about giving people a place where they can go on a personal journey, whatever that looks like for them,” he said. “Me, I’ll just be the guy on the tractor.”