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Parties see hope in Mullins talks

August 27, 2004 1:08 am

By GEORGE WHITEHURST

Some of the parties negotiating the future of the historic Mullins farm regard each other almost as warily as the Union and Confederate armies during the 1862 siege of Fredericksburg.

Still, at least one party is optimistic about forging a deal to preserve part of the farm.

Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, said this week that "progress has been made" in discussions to save between 80 and 120 acres on State Route 3 in Spotsylvania County. The land saw fighting on the first day of the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville.

Campi offered few details, adding that no deadline has been set for reaching a deal. "We're hoping for a win-win solution for everyone involved [and] especially for county residents," he said.

Discussions have occurred quietly for some time and involve the property owner, land developers, preservationists and county officials.

The land involved is 234 acres owned by John Mullins. Mullins once owned nearly 800 acres along Route 3. The balance of the farm apparently has been sold or put under contract to luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc.

The tract under negotiation includes 179 acres zoned for rural residential development and 55 acres zoned for commercial use.

Campi suggested that Toll Brothers--which already is building houses on some of the land it bought--apparently won't exercise its option to buy the 179 residential acres. If that proves correct, it opens the door for Spotsylvania-based Tricord Inc. to develop a portion of that land and the commercial acreage, and set part of it aside for preservation.

"My understanding is that the developer we're negotiating with [Tricord] has this property under contract--that Toll Brothers decided not to act upon its right for first refusal," Campi said.

The asking price for the 234 acres has not been disclosed. Mullins was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Mullins owns Covenant Funeral Service in Spotsylvania and once owned the larger Mullins and Thompson Funeral Service chain. He bought the farm in the mid-90s and has earned a considerable return on his investment, according to county land records.

On Jan 27, 1995, he paid a little over $563,000 to John and Margaret Orrock for 297 acres on Route 3.

Less than two months later, Mullins purchased 496 acres on Route 3 from Roderick and Shirley Ashley for $2.2 million.

Mullins originally tried to develop the property himself, but later entertained other offers. A Northern Virginia company wanted to build the Town of Chancellorsville--nearly 2,000 homes and up to 2.2 million square feet of shops and offices--but county supervisors rejected that plan in 2003.

On Jan. 26 of this year, Toll Brothers bought 30 building lots from Mullins for $2.73 million. The exact acreage was not listed in the land records, but the lots are zoned rural residential, meaning they must contain at least three acres.

On June 15, the company shelled out $3 million for an additional 123 acres.

Preservation activists and Mullins have clashed for years. Preservation groups have expressed interest in buying the farm but questioned his willingness to deal when he set a $40 million asking price. Mullins has said he never received a firm offer from the preservationists and grew tired of seeing them quoted in the newspaper saying they wanted to buy his land.

Into the breach has stepped Tricord.

Under the potential deal, the Spotsylvania developer would build a subdivision of age-restricted homes, a three-step continuing care center and low-impact retail and office space.

Tricord's role in the process was revealed last week by a member of the Spotsylvania Planning Commission.

Tricord officials declined this week to comment on the status of negotiations.

Spotsylvania Supervisor Hap Connors, an outspoken preservation advocate, is optimistic about the talks.

"Each time I've seen the proposals and the changes, it keeps looking better and better," he said.

Money may be one of the prime sticking points, given the rate at which Spotsylvania's land values are soaring.

Campi said his organization hasn't yet decided on a ceiling for its contribution to the deal.

"We're certainly not a cash cow, but the money's there for this deal," he said.

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





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