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Mullins deal mulled

August 13, 2004 1:09 am

By GEORGE WHITEHURST

Negotiations are under way to preserve a portion of the Mullins farm, while still allowing limited development of the historic tract on State Route 3 in Spotsylvania County.

John Mullins, owner of the 800-acre farm, hinted at the talks during Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.

Board Chairman Bob Hagan said in an interview that the discussions have occurred quietly for some time and involve preservationists, land developers and government officials.

The negotiations center on the land between Lick Run and Corter Avenue. It includes 179 acres zoned for rural residential development and 55 acres zoned for commercial use.

Hagan said a "very conscientious local developer" wants to build a subdivision of age-restricted homes, a three-step continuing care center and "very low-impact" retail and office space. He declined to name the developer.

The Free Lance-Star has learned that the deal would provide for preservation of between 80 and 120 acres of land along Route 3--an area preservationists want to save because fierce fighting occurred there on the first day of the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville. The rolling hillsides offer visitors a scenic welcome as they approach the portion of the Chancellorsville battlefield owned by the National Park Service.

"All of the details have not been worked out," Hagan stressed. "The deal is by no means complete. It's an opportunity, not a certainty."

The subdivision portion of the proposal would require a rezoning to allow a higher density of homes than the 62 that could be built right now. Officials have not said how many houses the age-restricted community would contain.

Supervisor Hap Connors said he is concerned about the project's size, but is pleased the developers would target it toward seniors.

"The value of age-restricted development is they have a lower impact on our capital costs and less impact on our roads," he said.

Supervisors say they prefer high-end, age-restricted homes because the residents often use fewer county services, especially the most expensive one--public schools.

Connors is also optimistic about balancing economic growth and historic preservation.

"We have an obligation and an opportunity to develop Route 3 in such a way that accommodates better commercial growth, while protecting these historic viewsheds," he said. "I do believe you can do the right thing and develop property at the same time."

The Civil War Preservation Trust is among the players in the talks and hopes to preserve a total of 300 acres of the farm's frontage--roughly 1,000 feet along the length of the property on Route 3. The trust has made overtures to Toll Brothers about its portion of the land, but no formal discussions have been held.

CWPT spokesman Jim Campi confirmed the discussions but wouldn't reveal the other parties, though he expressed optimism about a mutually beneficial deal.

"Everyone involved, including the landowner, seems committed to seeing the most historically significant portions of that property protected," he said.

Mullins didn't return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.

He caused a stir Tuesday evening when he hinted at the ongoing negotiations while speaking at a joint hearing before supervisors and the Planning Commission.

The supervisors called the public hearing to discuss removing all of the land between Route 3 and Spotswood Furnace Road from the county's designated growth zone.

Removal of the land from the so-called Primary Settlement District would make it virtually impossible for developers to obtain county water and sewer for any projects they build there.

The land would include the 789 acres that comprised Mullins' farm.

Mullins already has sold 555 acres west of Lick Run to Toll Brothers Inc., which is building 163 homes on that tract. Toll Brothers also has first rights on the 179 acres of residentially zoned property east of Lick Run, but hasn't yet exercised their option.

Mulllins warned Tuesday that removing his property from the growth district could ruin any potential deal for preserving historical ground.

"If there can't be a meeting of the mindswe have no choice but to allow Toll Brothers to complete their project," he said. "I'm under contract."

Mullins' development activities have drawn opposition from preservation activists almost since he bought the land in 1995.

In 1999, a lame-duck Board of Supervisors rezoned 55 acres of the parcel for commercial use. Critics argued the board did so as a favor to Mullins, a charge he denies.

In 2002, a subsequent board placed Mullins' farm within the growth district as part of a countywide overhaul of zoning rules. Mullins, who owns Covenant Funeral Service, had planned to sell the land to a Northern Virginia developer who wanted to build a village called the Town of Chancellorsville, but that fell through when the county refused to rezone the property in 2003.

Hagan said if the ongoing negotiations bear fruit, the supervisors won't need to change the growth boundary.

"In order to enable the project that would save part of the battlefieldwater and sewer would need to be made available, at the developer's cost, to that project," he said.

Campi said no timetable has been set for completing a deal, adding that the terms are very fluid.

But Mike Stevens, president of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, is thrilled the talks simply are occurring. His group has saved more than 200 acres of Civil War land in the Fredericksburg area, and Stevens said CVBT would contribute money and hold fund-raisers if needed to make the deal happen.

"I am very hopeful--some would say it's because I could be called Dr. Pangloss--that some of the hallowed ground we've been striving to save for years, is still savable," he said.

"It's still a doable deal, and I hope that we will get something done where everyone will feel they've done the best for themselves and for the community."

To reach GEORGE WHITEHURST: 540/374-5438 gwhitehurst@freelancestar.com





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