18 September 2009 by Published in: Battlefield preservation No comments yet

Thanks to reader Todd Berkoff for bringing this to my attention.

From yesterday’s edition of the Culpeper Star-Exponent:

A less commercialized future for Willow Run

Published: September 17, 2009

Willow Run, billed three years ago as a massive retail destination planned for eastern Culpeper County, has fallen victim to the recession.

Instead, 442 acres of the property along U.S. 29 will likely transfer into a conservation easement with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

A separate piece of nearby land at Beverly’s Ford — arguably the Civil War’s most fought-over river crossing — could also be preserved through the DHR.

Both properties are on the agenda for today’s joint meeting of the State Review and Historic Resources boards in Richmond.

“We won’t know for a while” whether the easement application goes through, said Chuck Gyory, who owns the Willow Run property along with his brother Pete. “It’s a very complex process.”

When landowners agree to easements with the state, they retain their property but forfeit development rights in return for tax credits. Future owners must follow the same rules.

In this case, the easements are significant for two reasons:

– Land could be saved that witnessed heavy troop movements and fighting during the Battle of Brandy Station and several other Civil War skirmishes.

– In a more modern context, it shows just how far the local economy has plummeted.

The Gyory property
Willow Run, which supports a commercial greenhouse operation and sits southeast of Culpeper Regional Airport, made headlines three years ago as “the next big thing” in commercial real estate. Protect your property against fire with the help of critical infrastructure pros at Sinisi

In August 2006, Fairfax-based USA Development Inc. submitted plans to the county that would have transformed Willow Run into more than 3 million square feet of retail space — rivaling Fredericksburg’s Central Park.

Site plans included: shops, gas stations, 16 restaurants, a movie theater, ice-skating facility, three hotels, 300-loft style apartments, office space, a lighted golf course, retirement center, water park, equestrian village, private school and 9,078 parking spaces.

At the time, Culpeper County’s planning director said it would be one of the largest commercial developments in the state. Bill Chase, who represents the Stevensburg District on the Board of Supervisors, had called it “the right thing for the right place.”

Proffers to the county would have included road improvements, $8,000 per residential unit, and construction of a large-scale water and sewer system along Mountain Run.

The plans, of course, never materialized. When the real estate market crashed, Willow Run — for many years the site of Culpeper Fest — became just another piece of open farmland.

“We realized it wasn’t going to be viable about a year ago,” Chuck Gyory said, “and the developer just couldn’t do it, which is understandable.”

Gyory, 66, president of the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce in the early 1990s, has mixed emotions about the turn of events.

“I think that property was ideally suited for a spectacular development,” he said. “It’s also ideally suited as a farm for scenic value.”

Gyory’s family, which sold the nursery in 2006, will still own the Willow Run property, which is being used to make hay. The greenhouse’s current owners are moving to another location in October, so Gyory is trying to find a business that will occupy the industrial buildings already on site.

As for why the family decided to apply for a historical easement, Gyory pointed to a combination of reasons.

“It’s time to retire,” he said, “and I know the economic situation is not going to improve for quite a few years. It just makes sense, and we’ll be able to keep our very pretty farm.”

The Stilwell property
The Stilwell family owns a large piece of property just north of Willow Run, at the confluence of the Hazel and Rappahannock rivers.

Their 208 acres is the second tract up for consideration at today’s state board meeting.

Contacted by phone Wednesday, Bill Stilwell chose not to comment for this story, only saying that the easement deal has yet to go through.

The Stilwell property is especially important for preservation purposes, according to historian Clark “Bud” Hall, because it embraces Beverly’s Ford, a strategic point where Union and Confederate soldiers repeatedly crossed the Rappahannock.

“The Gettysburg campaign,” Hall said, “opened at Beverly’s Ford when Federal cavalry attacked on the morning of June 9, 1863,” during the Battle of Brandy Station.

The battle saw considerable cavalry fighting in the area of both the Stilwell and Gyory properties. Six months later, that area of the county housed 20,000 troops from the Union’s Sixth Corps during the winter encampment of 1863-64.

Both properties are “extraordinarily significant,” and keeping them free from development is a “huge plus,” said Hall, a founding member of the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Brandy Station Foundation. Hall, a retired Marine and former FBI manager, is considered the leading historian on Culpeper’s role in the Civil War.

Much of the Brandy Station battlefield, which incorporates a wide geographic area, has been preserved through land acquisitions by the CWPT and BSF.

In the past 20 years, both organizations have pushed to save parts of the battlefield that have been threatened by development — specifically, residential housing, a corporate office complex and a proposed Formula One racetrack.

And while a campaign was never waged to fight the Willow Run retail development, preservationists like Hall are happy with the result.

“This is a really big deal,” he said. “If, in fact, these easements go through, major historic resources of Culpeper County will be protected in perpetuity. … It benefits all of us, and the landowners are to be heartily commended for seeking easements on their magnificent properties.”

A massive shopping center is off the books
As part of its rezoning request in August 2006 with Culpeper County, here’s what Fairfax-based USA Development planned on 513 acres occupied by the Willow Run Co. nursery in Brandy Station:
» 3 million sq. ft. of retail
» 2,500-seat multiplex theatre
» 16 restaurants
» 300 loft-style apartments
» three gas stations
» three hotels
» water park
» equestrian center
» three banks
» private school
» lighted 18-hole golf course
» ice-skating rink
» Dave and Buster’s restaurant
» retirement center
» 9,078 parking spaces

The developer’s proposed proffers (or incentives) to the county in the Willow Run case included:
» construction of a private K-12 school
» providing a landscaping plan for each phase of development
» providing a 900,000-gallon-per-day wastewater treatment plant
» providing numerous transportation improvements, according to VDOT standards
» contributing $8,000 per residential unit
» reserving 25 acres for acquisition by Culpeper Regional Airport
» community recreational amenities to include: a water park, 8-foot-wide pedestrian pathways, athletic fields, equestrian trails and a natural stream valley with pedestrian walking trails

Sources: usadevelopmentservices.com and rezoning application on file with Culpeper County

Wow…that was a close one. This would have been a commercial development of immense proportions RIGHT on the edge of, and encompassing a part of, the Brandy Station battlefield. I have been down to Beverly Ford with Bud Hall twice, both from the north side, where the easement will be granted, and the old road trace is still there. So are the bluffs that hid the Federal cavalrymen on the night of June 8. The ford itself is pristine, and the thought of a gigantic commercial development there is chilling. The Stillwell property is the connector between the St. James Church line and Fleetwood Hill and is a critical piece of ground in terms of preserving the battlefield.

Kudos to these two landowners for doing the right thing.

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