- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

MIDDLEBURG, Va. - The terrain was rugged and soggy, the ascent somewhat of a challenge for the diverse crowd of hikers, conservationists, politicos and horsey-set types who gathered Saturday morning to celebrate the rerouting of a strategic patch of the Appalachian Trail near the town of Paris, Va.

The 0.2-mile segment represents only a tiny portion of the hallowed 217.4-mile trekking ground, but its significance was far greater than one might presume, Rep.Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, told the crowd at the dedication ceremony for the Charles Whitehouse Ridge, named for the late diplomat and landowner who helped encourage the movement for preservation easements on wide stretches of private property in Virginia’s Piedmont country.

Like the estimated 250,000 acres currently under easement in nine counties there, the 200-acre addition to the National Park Service trail could have been lost forever to development. Instead, because of tax credits and other inducements, at least part of Ovoka, a vast private estate once owned by the prominent Paris, Va., Thomas family, ended up being preserved as open space for future generations.

“There is no more beautiful land than this,” Mr. Wolf said with some emotion before noting that he couldn’t bear the thought of the unparalleled view being ruined by “a subdivision with houses, driveways and swimming pools.”

While there was certainly no disagreement with the 13-term congressman’s sentiments, several listeners couldn’t help shaking their heads when asked about the long-term feasibility of curtailing suburban blight.

“It’s like watching a juggernaut churning down the highway. You can’t stop it; the most you can do is try to shape it,” said Richard N. Viets, squire of Over the Grass Farm in the nearby village of The Plains. “We were able to stop Disney” from building a huge theme park on the western edge of Prince William County in 1994, he noted sadly “but now that land is filled with thousands of row houses.”

Tax burdens and the inevitability of dividing property among multiple beneficiaries make it difficult to keep many of the larger estates intact. Escalating staff and maintenance costs are another factor, even for owners who can afford to lose millions of dollars each year on their farm and horse-breeding operations.

“There certainly aren’t as many of the 1,000-acres-or-thereabouts properties as there were in Middleburg area 10 years ago,” said one longtime resident who named candy queen Jacqueline B. Mars, banker Joe L. Allbritton, BertramandDiana Firestone (tire heir married to Johnson & Johnson scion), the Mills family (du Pont heirs), andShelby Bonnie, a member of Virginia’s illustrious Randolph clan who recently made a mint in high tech.

Later that afternoon, about 350 guests gathered at Confederate Hall on Hickory Tree Farm in Middleburg to raise funds for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (VALCV), a non-partisan group founded in 2000 to elect pro-conservation candidates in state and local elections.

“It’s a tent full of people who love the land,” said Catherine “Bundles” Murdock, a fourth-generation hunt country resident who serves on the Middleburg town council. “It’s also the A-List from this area,” she said as Hickory Tree farm owner Mimi Abel-Smith and her brother James P. Mills Jr., George L. Ohrstrom II, Mark Ohrstrom, Allen Ohrstrom, Victor and Barbara du Pont, Laura “Lokie” van Roijen, Donald Glickman, Marie Ridder, Mary Swift, Cate Magennis Wyatt and Ned Evans tucked in for mahi-mahi and roast duck, dancing, a live auction and a recognition ceremony for a dozen of the 26 Virginia legislators who earned a 75 percent-or-higher rating on recent conservation issues.

Talk inevitably turned to current crisis issues, especially Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson’s plans to construct a 58-room hotel, spa and party pavilion on a section of a 340-acre property once owned by Averell and Pamela Harriman near the Middleburg town limits. (The Old Guard says it’s just too big and will cause traffic problems besides.)

Others fumed about the loss of yet another 950 acres if a plan to erect 18 “cookie-cutter mega-mansions” on another old farm site is allowed to proceed.

“We thought the owner was going to do the right thing,” said VALCV board doyenne Eve Fout, “but he bought the land [for $9 million], sold it [for $18 million] and then got out.”

— Kevin Chaffee

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