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Bundoran Farm Part II-Interview with David Hamilton

Bundoran FarmMichael Collins’ July 23, 2008 Interview with Bundoran Farm Project Manager David Hamilton is provided in its entirety below.   

1. David, first, what are the specifics on Bundoran? How many acres, lots, how much wooded/pasture, etc.

First, it’s bigger than most people think.  Bundoran Farm comprises 2,300 acres, which for reference is about a third of the size of Charlottesville.  It’s about fifteen minutes south of Charlottesville, near Batesville.  Bundoran includes about 1,100 acres of pasture, home to approximately 400 head of cattle, as well as a thousand acres of mostly mature hardwood forest, and more than a hundred acres of apple orchards.  We’ve platted 93 lots at Bundoran, and our easement limits development to a maximum of 108 homesites, an extremely low density that we think is appropriate for this agrarian landscape.

2. You are a developer. You are also a conservationist. How do you integrate these at Bundoran? I know the two might be contradictory in most people’s imagination, though I think we’re already seeing cases where strong partnerships across these seemingly opposite constituencies are happening, and we’ll see more. 

The short answer to your question is that the partners we’ve brought in at Bundoran already have this integrated approach.  Qroe Farm Preservation Development, my company, has been doing market-driven farmland preservation for decades, and our partners Celebration Associates are coming from the Homestead Preserve, where a for-profit resort redevelopment has powered the permanent protection and management of over ten thousand acres of scenic mountain land in Bath County.  This outlook extends to consultants and financial partners as well:  thinking this way might be new, but it’s not new for this team.

The more general answer is that, from whichever side you approach this problem, cooperation is required.  We’ve watched as precious and productive landscapes disappear to development, and it’s clear that the real estate industry must get involved.  We can’t leave the conservation to government and charity, because they’re not driving the problem.  Also, there’s pressure from buyers, who just aren’t interested in being a part of destructive development, of losing connection to the land they came to be a part of, and they’re frankly more demanding of developers to come up with solutions that work with the land, rather than against it.

3. Conservation developments typically cluster developed lots to preserve environmental features. How is the Bundoran Model different or the same as this model?

The goals are the same, but the structure of the community is substantially different.  Cluster models are appropriate on some kinds of land, but they require that the owner choose.  Part of the land becomes densely-developed, often along very typical suburban approaches.  The remainder is “pure” conservation.  At Bundoran, development is more distributed, according to mapping of critical resources we and the community want to protect.  As a result, we’re able to reduce overall density, and overall impact, to this landscape.

There’s also the issue of land management: When owners live on small parcels, adjacent to a “conservation parcel,” the management of this common land becomes someone else’s problem.  Lotlines at Bundoran run across pastures, forests, orchards and ponds.  So each of these precious areas, while protected by easements, are under private ownership.  We actually prefer “stewardship,” which communicates the fact that each property-owner receives the benefit of well-managed and productive land.  As a result, they defend it fiercely.

4. Although the project has preserved much of the acreage of the property, you are still developing lots in the rural areas, and bringing more people into it. An environmental perspective exists that we need to get humans out of rural areas. How do you respond to this criticism?  

I think underlying this assumption is a misconception that rural areas are depopulated agricultural preserves.  They are not.  There’s a sophisticated economy here, and residents who are watching this landscape change.  The challenge is often presented as “how do we keep people out of the rural areas?”  I think what we’re proposing at Bundoran Farm is different:  We want to know how to allow people (a small number of people, perhaps) to become a part of this wonderful rural community of Southern Albemarle, without destroying that economy, that landscape, that culture that drew them (and their neighbors) here.

Even if you consider the “no-growth” approach to be valid and desirable, I think we all need to consider that, historically, Americans’ most reliable response to the desires of planners  is to ignore them completely.  Some people just want to live in the country.  And why not?  It’s a great place to raise a child, as my wife and I are doing.  It’s a great place to retire.  What we want to do is to shape this impulse, so that this lifestyle can be accomodated, without burdening the land, or the larger community.  And we think that endowing this land with additional stewards, who come to understand and love this area, will protect the farm and its neighbors in the future in a way that “pure” conservation doesn’t always achieve.

5. What specific stewardship activites have you implemented that did not exist prior to the development?

Well, first off, let’s not shortchange the significance of simply continuing what happened before.  Some very intelligent developers have come to areas like this before, and come up with a completely rational response: eliminate farming activity when development comes.  And it’s a very difficult thing to plan a community with as much attention to cows as to people.

As for new initiatives, we began with a thorough cataloging of what’s here, including testing of soils and water.  Most of this information represents things the previous owners knew intuitively, or from sixty years of work on the land, but it’s very important to have the baseline understanding, and a resulting plan (what we call the “Ecological Design,” so that the care of this land can proceed for generations.

That plan includes, but is not limited to, cattle-exclusion from thousands of feet of Bundoran’s streams, and provision of alternative shade and water (wells and springs), to allow a full program of rotational grazing to be implemented on all three of the major pasture areas.  It also includes some planting, enhancement and encouragement of emergent wetlands on the farm, areas that may have been artificially drained over many generations.  In addition, our program requires changes to the farm’s approach to chemical applications.  They’re not prohibited, necessarily, just thought about in terms of new technologies available, and in terms of the new economics of a farm-residential community.  We also have put some investment into upkeep of some of the existing farm structures, which increase productivity of the fields they serve, and we’re struggling, as ll farms are, with how best to handle nutrient management, in the face of rising fertilizer prices.  All of these activities are underway and visible at Bundoran Farm today. 

No less important than any of these conservation and environmental science initiatives is simply that there’s now someone in charge.  The farm has been endowed with a Natural Resource Manager, in addition to the Farm Manager.  These two gentlemen work together to ensure that farm and development practices follow the mission we’ve set for ourselves.

6. How is Bundoran different than other conservation-type developments in Virginia, such as Farmcolony, RiverBluff, or others?

Well, for one, it’s bigger.  Much bigger than most established examples.  This is important because the sheer area and quality of this land makes the preserved farm and forest lands a huge amenity for residents.  There simply aren’t many places where you can walk off your back porch, get on a horse, and ride for ten or fifteen miles, then hop in the car and be at a shopping destination or a major research university in 15 minutes.  This “specialness” is significant, because it’s what allows us to operate at such a low density, and to introduce some of the programs we’ve begun, which would frankly be a burden on a smaller community.

The structure of the community is also innovative, in that there is no “common land,” although more than ninety percent of the farm is in common use.  Bundoran Farm has allocated more resources than most conservation-oriented communities to the farm operation, which is what’s really unusual here.  We anticipate and plan for agriculture to continue here (at an economical scale) for many generations.  I’m not aware of any similar communities which have approached the preservation-easement and covenant structure in the same way.  We’d never claim it’s unimprovable, but we think the balance between individual privacy and community responsibility is pretty finely-tuned at Bundoran.

7. How will the landowners manage the working landscapes within the development?

That’s in many ways the most important part of Bundoran Farm.  The easement areas comprise about 93% of the land here, with portions in pasture, managed forest, older-growth forest and orchards.  Each of these landscape types is under its own management plan, and in the case of cattle and orchards, a lease.  The landowners delegate decision-making to the Farm Management Committee, a group which has representation from landowners, but also particular expertise in forestry, environmental science, and farming.  The FMC makes recommendations to the property owners on how and to whom to lease land, as well as any common area improvments or maintenance to be undertaken on behalf of the owners.  It’s a way of giving homeowners a stake in this land, while also ensuring professional management, by people with a stake in the agricultural businesses here.  The owners have additional expertise in our Farm Manager, Eddie Mawyer, who’s been at Bundoran for thirty-five years, and Leif Riddervold, Audubon International’s Natural Resource Manager for the property, each of whom oversee the day-to-day operation of the land.

8. Why would a buyer purchase a lot at Bundoran rather than buy a farmette in Virginia’s countryside?

There are several reasons.  First, a prospective buyer would have to purchase a very large farm, probably on the order of several hundred acres, in order to get a fraction of the protected landscape, trails and other amenities available with a Bundoran homesite.  Second, a “farmette,” as you call it, does not provide the protection of views that Bundoran can.  At Bundoran Farm, you know not only what’s going to happen on your land, but on all the adjacent parcels, across the valley, and even a mile or two away.  It’s all platted, the covenants and easements are recorded.  It’s a much higher level of security than all but the largest and most expensive farms on the market. 

Additionally, the owner doesn’t have to manage the farm.  They can choose to be involved, if they like, but this landscape is taken care of by people in the business of agriculture, so you don’t have to own a bushhog, hire staff, build fences.  Many of our buyers have owned, or currently own, rural land elsewhere.  They understand this value. 

Finally, there’s just the sense of being part of something bigger, and that’s not trivial.  Ultimately, Bundoran Farm is more than a real estate development.  This is a perpetual stewardship plan for one of the most spectacular pieces of farmland in this area.  That’s not something you get, when you buy twenty acres somewhere else in the country.  There’s an agricultural, ecological, historical story that owners here are part of, and that’s why we insist on calling these folks “stewards,” rather than “buyers.”  Purchasing a homesite at Bundoran is a commitment of stewardship for future generations.

Bundoran Farm sample listings are found on the Conserv Conservation Property Marketplace.




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