Dean Porter Andrews and Lynn Easton, owners of Easton Porter Group that runs Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyard on Plank Road in North Garden, have presented a plan to the county to develop two parcels of land adjacent to the Pippin Hill estate to the south. The potential buyers propose renovating the existing Inn at the Crossroads and other historic structures, as well as building an additional 11 duplex cottages, each of which could host two sets of guests, on the property.
For Easton Porter Group (EPG) to proceed, the county would have to grant a Special Use Permit to allow the construction of the new inn units. Such permits may be allowed on property zoned as Rural Areas if the construction is done in association with rehabilitating historic buildings. The Inn at the Crossroads, built in 1820, is listed on the National Historic Register and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. It currently operates as a bed and breakfast with six guest rooms ranging from $150 to $300 per night.
“To restore the Inn, the whole thing would need to be taken all the way down to the original structure and rebuilt, so we would end up with four or five rooms in the original tavern building,” said Andrews. “We’d restore the interior of the schoolhouse building back to its original 19-foot ceilings with exposed beams and would turn that into a sort of guest library. That’s where guests would check in and where we’d be offering our concierge services for people doing tours and other experiences.”
At an online public meeting about the plans held on April 4, Andrews dubbed his concept “The Next Generation” for the Inn at the Crossroads property. He said that he and Easton would purchase the parcels personally, to be placed in a family trust, thereby holding the new development separate from Pippin Hill proper. However, the plan’s schematics depict an integrated operation complete with an interior road connecting the cottages to the winery and an extensive array of guest experiences on offer, including farm-to-table dining, a cooking school, spa and wellness escapes, and historic education tours.
“We’re focusing on agritourism experiences and really a return to the original experiences one could have had back 150 years ago, what the original farms were used for,” Andrews said as he highlighted a “Wine Cellar Weekend” concept with tours, tastings, demonstrations, and a five-course, wine-paired dinner. “It fits in to what people are looking for now.” He described plans for PVCC-certified classes in horticulture, beekeeping, and flower arranging and wreath making, and touted the project’s enhanced water treatment systems and rainwater recycling, its use of organic products in the kitchen, laundry, and gardens, and the possibility of using ground solar panels and small wind turbines on the property.
While Pippin Hill is allowed to serve only small plates in its tasting room and private dinners for events under Virginia’s “farm winery” rules, the Inn holds a restaurant license and has an ancillary kitchen in the tavern building. “We would upgrade the kitchen to meet the current health code, and that would allow us to do wine and chef’s dinners for people staying there—perhaps guests and their guests,” said Andrews. “It’s too small of scale to make into an à la carte restaurant, so we’d just be doing things like a spring planting dinner, spring harvest dinner, winter equinox celebration—fun things like that.”
Bundoran Residents Raise Concerns
Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards lies entirely within the Bundoran Farm residential development envelope, and Bundoran’s 2,300 acres and 91 homesites have an unusual ownership structure. While residents own parcels of varying sizes, they each build their homes on a two-acre plot and cede the right to manage the remaining land to a board called the Bundoran Farm Community Association (BFCA), which decides what to do with it according to a set of environmentally sound, rural principles. The land is in conservation easement and almost 90% is kept as managed forests or used for livestock, hay, grapevines, and apple orchards.
Until the property owners gained majority possession of the lots in Bundoran in the last few years, the board’s Farm Management and Design Review Committees were populated exclusively by the original developers and non-residents. There were only four houses under construction in Bundoran in 2010 when the BFCA described the Pippin Hill concept to the homeowners.
“It was pitched to us as a winery that produced its own grapes and its own wine, and oh, by the way, it would occasionally have events,” said Ken Heimgartner, whose Virginia-style farmhouse overlooks Pippin Hill from a ridge to the west. “It made perfect sense that it would fit into an agricultural environment. But then, you know, almost every year or two, we turn around and there is an addition being built onto it. We didn’t have a say in it, didn’t vote to get it, and now it’s grown to where it’s like a strip mall.”
Near neighbor and Bundoran resident Jon Scheumann raised concerns about the proposal after the April public meeting, where many residents were taken aback by the plans, though Easton Porter Group (EPG) had presented the early stages of the project in a January BFCA meeting. EPG sent a county-mandated notification about the community meeting to two dozen area parcel owners but to only two Bundoran residents, not including several along Carpenter Drive such as Heimgartner and others who have a direct view of the project area.
“[Many of us] came in to the meeting cold,” said Scheumann, “and were trying to catch up with what was going on, when it started to set in—this is a hotel development tied to a winery to drive an events business.” He worries about the precedent that approving the new development will set.
“[The expansion] is incredibly unsuited for the community, and it’s going to blow open the gates for developers that want to look at the corridor from Plank Road down through Batesville over to Wavertree and then all the way to Hazy Mountain and Rt. 250 and 151,” he said. “It’s a hotel with accommodations for 40 or 50 people a night and an associated restaurant. And it’s not a standalone business—it has direct ties to Pippin Hill. They want to build access roads and drive everybody right to Pippin Hill and have bigger weddings and more buses and more delivery trucks.”
EPG disputes this characterization of its plans. “The properties will be separate operating entities,” said Matt Lovelady, Pippin Hill’s director of operations. “At the same time, people are already visiting the Inn to visit us. I think one argument from the Bundoran folks is that this will open a door for other businesses, but we really feel we want to continue the historical piece that’s already in place—this isn’t a new thing in the community. I think the expansion [will be] even lighter than what we’ve calculated in the sense that there are already cars going to this property, and so adding a few cottages isn’t going to radically change that.”
The Heimgartners, who built their dream home in Bundoran to retire to, say they’ve found Pippin Hill to be indifferent neighbors who have only followed county ordinances on outdoor lighting, noise, and screening when formal complaints were filed. Residents say that when they’ve taken their concerns to county planners and their Board of Supervisors’ representative (first Liz Palmer and now Jim Andrews), the project is promoted as a boon to local tax revenue, but no local benefits are evident.
“In 10 years, I haven’t seen one [improvement] to Plank Road, the trash on the road doesn’t get picked up, and the intersection down there [at Plank and Rt. 29] just kills people,” said Heimgartner. “So, what is the oversight mechanism that we have in this county? We have a Planning Commission, we have a Board of Supervisors, and we have planners who all appear to be proactive to get more development.” Andrews presented data on the 2021 tax revenue from current Pippin Hill operations and said that the new project could generate about $120,000 in additional revenue for the county.
Scheumann agrees that skepticism is warranted. “There is a really lengthy history of bad behavior by the owners of Pippin Hill in not adhering to community standards at Bundoran Farm, such as dark sky ordinances,” he said. “At eight or nine o’clock at night the place is lit up like a Christmas tree. They were obligated through agreements to do plantings to shield the parking areas from view, but it took 10 years of repeated requests to get those plantings. They received permission from our community association to build a storage shed for equipment, and the storage shed turned out to be about 50 by 50 feet, and about 40 feet tall, and it was built outside of the boundaries. It’s all in bad faith.”
Following EPG’s initial presentation at the public meeting in April, the group floated a revised plan to county planners that decreased the number of cottages from 11 to 7 and dropped the idea of buying the eastern lot adjacent to Rt. 29. EPG expects to formally file the adjusted application on June 6. A draft version of the revised presentation pushes back on neighbors’ concerns, asserting that the proposal “does NOT set a precedent for rural commercial hotels and event centers,” and that “allegations of Pippin Hill’s history and ‘major expansion’ are NOT factual.”
“Seven cottages will provide us enough revenue so that we can cover the costs of renovating the buildings and run the operation and keep people employed,” said Andrews. “We envision a market of probably 80% leisure guests and 20% some sort of business guests on corporate retreats.” EPG plans to keep weddings and other large-scale events at Pippin Hill. “We’re conscious of the sound ordinance and we design [our structures] for limited transmission of sound through the walls because we’re in a rural area.” Andrews said he envisions guests “walking through the gardens and perhaps coming out for acoustic guitar in the evening—specifically not intrusive [to neighbors].”
At a Crossroads
Chris Hendy moved to Bundoran Farm in 2019 knowing that Pippin Hill was within his property’s viewshed, and though he thought the winery could be a nice amenity, he’s against further expansion of the operation. “We don’t think more development along Plank Road is a good thing,” said Hendy, who bikes long distances with his wife daily along the winding road. “It’s a country road, and it’s not designed for traffic. If you read the information put out by Easton Porter, they want to convince you that 100% of their traffic comes off of Rt. 29 [to the east], and that’s just not true.”
Traveling Plank Road westward from Pippin Hill for four or five miles leads to Batesville, and from there over to Routes 250 and 151 where many other wineries and breweries are popular tourist destinations. The EPG proposal states that “all traffic [related to the expansion] will be within 500 feet of Rt. 29, so no impact on Bundoran,” but Hendy points out that mapping apps direct traffic from Afton onto Rt. 250 and Plank Road to get to Pippin Hill, and the proposed expansion will only increase traffic on an already insufficient roadway and create a serious safely hazard.
“Really, the most unsafe part of Plank is beyond Batesville, where the road twists and turns and goes up and down and you have poor sight lines,” he said. “There’s not even a center line as the road is too narrow. This project extends and expands [Pippin Hill’s] footprint and the number of cars and service vehicles, and the number of employees as well, so it’s a significant increase in traffic.”
The revised plan presents a traffic assessment that concludes that the new cottages and dinner service at the Inn will increase the traffic on Plank Road by 86 vehicle trips per day at full occupancy. “VDOT’s multi-year, actual traffic count on Plank Road is pretty consistent at 2,000 vehicles per day,” said Andrews. “So regardless of how you view traffic as coming from the east or west, we’re talking about increasing it by under four percent.”
EPG also provides data intended to counter the idea that Pippin Hill is pursuing greater numbers of guests at the winery in a graph comparing 2019 vs. 2021 guest counts. The graph shows that Pippin Hill served 79,307 guests in 2019, but only 58,407 guests in 2021, in part by moving to a reservations-only model during the pandemic. The revised plan states that as part of the Special Use Permit approval, EPG “is willing to commit to limits for gatherings.”
Hendy pointed out that EPG will need approval from the BFCA to bring its plans to fruition. “If you have as many beds as they are planning, you need a significant septic field,” he said, “and that parcel doesn’t have it. So part of their game plan is to put a septic field over on Bundoran property, in the meadow below the winery.” The original Pippin Hill Farm bargain with Bundoran Farm in 2010 included an Easement Subordination Agreement, outlining boundaries and covenants governing the property. A septic field and potential interior roadway connecting the new cottages up to the winery would likely need BFCA assent to be constructed.
“We put those things in the plan with the understanding that we would have to go to the Bundoran board for that conversation,” said Lovelady. “[The drainage field] was just something that we thought we could work with them on, but given the feedback, we’ve been able to remove that portion. To be frank, I think we would have originally submitted something different [to the county] had the community come forward with their concerns earlier. We’re a little confused as to how that did not gain more traction at the January [community] meeting.”
As the EPG works through the county approval process, Hendy said there’s been a remarkable difference in the nighttime lighting at the winery. “The last two to three weeks, I will say, I think they are consciously making an effort to make [the winery] darker at night now.” Still, he’s not optimistic that EPG will engage constructively with Bundoran Farm. “Their mindset over the years has been, do it and then ask for forgiveness later.”
“They [Pippin Hill and EPG] just thumb their nose at [the easement restrictions],” said Heimgartner. “They’re incredibly powerful, they’re well financed, they’re supported by the legislature, they’re supported by the county. They come into a neighborhood they start small, they talk about how this is going to be agritourism, and then it’s 99% ‘tourism’ and only 1% ‘agri.’ Why would I come here for the rural area knowing that I’m going to have a mega development next to me because the whims of the planners and the supervisors? If they want this area to turn into [an area like] north of Charlottesville, then just be open about it and tell us what they’re going to do.”
After EPG submits its revised plans, a date for a hearing before the Planning Commission will be set and a staff report recommending approval or denial will be issued five to seven days prior to that hearing. The application and Planning Commission recommendation will then go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.