Thomas Jefferson's estate in the background with its representation on a nickel in the foreground. (Wikimedia Commons)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — The foundation that owns Thomas Jefferson’s estate hopes to take efforts to preserve Monticello’s spectacular mountain views a step further, an idea that worries some developers.
A request the group filed with the Albemarle County Planning Commission calls for nearly quadrupling the size of what’s known as the Monticello viewshed and expanding voluntary guidelines for developers in the region.
“There’s a reason we’re up there with the pyramids and the Great Wall,” said Leslie Greene Bowman , president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “It has a lot do with Jefferson’s vision, not only figuratively but literally.”
Since 2007, the foundation has offered a list of voluntary guidelines for landowners in an effort to curtail visually conspicuous development in the Monticello viewshed, advising landowners on everything from roof color to building materials.
Following years of easements and community partnerships, the foundation is looking for new, but just as effective, ways to preserve Jefferson’s landscape, said foundation Vice President Ann H. Taylor.
“We have about 2,600 of Jefferson’s original 5,000 acres that the foundation owns or controls,” Taylor said. “Most of the land that could be eased has been done.”
The concept of a viewshed is nothing new, but it takes on added depth in the case of Monticello, which touts as part of its mystique not only Jefferson’s visionary estate but the vistas that extend from it. The foundation for years has worked to safeguard those views in the way Jefferson saw them while also preserving the president’s iconic plantation home.
But the additional steps being considered for the county’s comprehensive plan are a point of angst. Some commissioners and local developers have expressed fear that the proposed measures would restrict property rights in the shadow of Monticello.
At a public hearing on the comprehensive plan, Free Enterprise Forum President Neil Williamson said the foundation’s guidelines for voluntary compliance amounted to “an effective land grab.”
Commissioners and developers raised similar concerns at a county planning commission meeting earlier this year.
“I just see this as a potential hurdle for the developer, or the person that wants to build an individual home, that the person is going to have to stumble over,” Commissioner Calvin Morris said. “Things that may be voluntary today are going to be a requirement tomorrow.”
Local developer and Commissioner Don Franco agreed, but said he would support the measures if the plan emphasized the “voluntary” aspects.
“I’m OK with ‘voluntary’ if we all agree that it truly is voluntary,” Franco said at the meeting. “I applaud the effort for them to be able to reach out and get the knowledge out there. I just want to strengthen ‘voluntary’ and make sure it doesn’t become a requirement.”
Since then, Bowman and her staff have worked to assure commissioners that the foundation does not plan to pursue mandatory compliance.
“Our goal is to really work with our community. We know the community values Monticello and we value the community,” Bowman said Monday. “We’re just asking for voluntary guidelines to start the conversation.”
Bowman pointed to the foundation’s success working with the Martha Jefferson Hospital in Pantops as an example of how the group and community organizations can work together to build structures that preserve functionality as well as the natural landscape.
“They made some changes in the color of the roof and breaking up the parking lot and adding trees to the hospital’s landscaping,” Taylor said. “So the hospital is part of an area of development, but it’s not sticking out in any notable way from the rest of the landscape.”
“We can work with landowners and find that dialogue to find that win-win,” Bowman said. “We can invite people up, look at their plans and see what we can do that benefits both of us.”
The discussion here is echoed elsewhere.
In a 2009 viewshed report prepared for the Manassas National Battlefield Park, consultants from Walker Collaborative of Nashville argued that easements and community partnerships are not sustainable for viewshed preservation.
Unlike fixed historic locations, viewsheds often incorporate hundreds, even thousands, of acres.
In this case, the report said, “preservation efforts based primarily on controlling privately-owned land through acquisition or easements may be cost prohibitive.”
Instead, the report encouraged the National Park Service, which manages the battlefield, to consider public policies as “a primary tool for preserving battlefield viewsheds.”
The document proposed not only regulating urban development but incentivizing open space development.
But Bowman and Taylor said that what works for Manassas wouldn’t necessarily work for Monticello.
“What we found is it’s a lot easier if you’re designing a project and you know early on that there’s a conversation we would like to have with you,” Bowman said. “We just want a spirit of dialogue, that voluntary cooperation to just preserve this unique asset.”
Monticello attracts 500,000 visitors and generates $47 million in local revenue annually, according to the foundation.
The county planning commission is scheduled to hold its next meeting on the comprehensive plan April 16. The plan must meet commissioners’ approval before being submitted to the Albemarle County supervisors
Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com