Historic district session devolves into shouting match over boundary confusion, notification issues
Last week’s informational meeting about a proposal to designate Ben Venue Road as the county’s first official rural historic district began as a celebration of Rappahannock County’s rich history — and ended in a shouting match, colored by a bit of antigovernment fervor and fueled by property records that remain (as they do in many rural areas) incomplete and hard to decipher.
Hosted by representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), the meeting at Griffin Tavern was part of the official process of nominating rural historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service, and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Before the meeting, DHR mailed notification letters and boundary maps to property owners in the district, as well as to property owners adjacent to the proposed district. Notification is required to ensure public participation in the nomination process and the opportunity to comment at informational meetings and by mailing notarized statements to the agencies making the final decision on the designation.
The meeting drew about 20 attendees, including a handful of property owners, among them Pat Saltonstall of Points of View Farm, the second-largest property in the proposed district. No one attended from Ben Venue Farm, the largest property in the proposed district. Also in attendance were several owners of adjacent properties, and owners of properties who thought they should have been notified but weren’t. Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser attended (County Administrator John McCarthy was out of town), as did school board chair John Lesinski, a candidate for the open board of supervisors seat in the Hampton district, representing one of the property owners. No other county officials were present.
As the attendees arrived, some were already complaining about the inaccuracy of the boundary maps they had received that skewed property lines. Although the meeting presentation included a slide of a more accurate map, the issue of the inaccurate maps was raised time and again, despite the presenters’ best efforts to reassure attendees that new maps would be mailed out. So, from the meeting’s beginning, the seeds of discontent were sown.
The feel-good part of the meeting
David Edwards, director of the DHR regional office, welcomed the attendees and introduced Aubrey Von Lindern, architectural historian at DHR, who addressed some common misconceptions about being included on the National Register:
“The National Register officially recognizes the architectural and historic significance of an area,” she said. “It also qualifies property owners for certain tax credits and easement programs. Registration also imposes additional requirements before state and federal government agencies can start certain projects; thus, being on the register actually mitigates the negative impact of federal or state government-funded projects.”
Von Lindern also explained that listing on the state and national registers is honorary and does not place restrictions or requirements on the property owners: “The register does not prevent property owners from nor require them to renovate or demolish their property, or restrict an owner’s use of his or her property.” (For more information about designation of National Register Historic Districts, visit dhr.virginia.gov/registers/register_faq.htm.)
Next Jennifer Hallock of Arcadia Preservation, a historic-preservation consulting firm based in Charlottesville, read a draft report on the historic and architectural significance of Rappahannock County. Hallock has been involved with the creation of the Ben Venue Rural Historic District since it first was identified in the 2003 County-Wide Architectural Survey as a potential rural historic district.
Said Hallock, “The draft report covers the period of significance dating from circa 1770 to 1965 along the 3.4 miles of Ben Venue Road between the late-18th-century villages of Gaines Crossroads [now called Ben Venue] and Flint Hill.” Her accompanying slide presentation showed examples of older buildings that still stand today, such as the main house and slave cabins of Ben Venue Farm, the stone house at Clifton, the Toll Gate Farm house that once served as a toll house on the road, as well as notable modern structures, such as the architecture-award-winning barns at Points of View Farm. (Full disclosure: the author of this story is one of the owners of Toll Gate Farm.)
Hallock’s presentation included the more accurate map of the district. After the report, Hallock and the DHR representatives opened the floor for questions . . .
. . . and then the shouting started
Several attendees from South Poes Road claiming to be owners of adjacent properties had only learned of the meeting through a neighbor and not through notification letters, they said. Brenda Mieth was especially upset, even suggesting that the historic district — as a program of the federal government — was “the start of a government land grab.” Von Lindern tried to reassure Mieth, reiterating that being listed on the Register actually places restrictions on state and federal governments that want to do certain kinds of projects on private land.
Von Lindern, Edwards and Hallock, clearly taken by surprise by the sentiment of those attendees, acknowledged again that the original map sent to them had problems and that new maps would be mailed out. However, it quickly became apparent that the real issue with the maps — even the more accurate one that Hallock presented — was that they were created from the county’s tax maps, which are inaccurate for a number of reasons. Because of that inaccuracy, it is possible that some owners of adjacent properties that should have been notified weren’t. (See sidebar.)
McCarthy, out of town and unable to attend the meeting, said later, “We will look into the issue and determine if additional notifications to adjacent property owners are necessary. However, it doesn’t sound like there was objection to the designation itself, just to the flawed boundary maps that DHR provided.”
In the meantime, the process rolls on. Edwards and Von Lindern will forward comments from the meeting to the State Review Board, the Board of Historic Resources and the agency director. Property owners who object to the designation must submit their objections in writing as a notarized statement. If a majority of private property owners formally object, the proposed historic district will not be listed.
On Sept. 17, the State Review Board and the Board of Historic Resources will meet in Williamsburg to consider the Ben Venue Rural Historic District for recommendation to the National Register of Historic Places and for inclusion in the Virginia Landmarks Register.
More about the Ben Venue proposal
If accepted, the Ben Venue Rural Historic District will join three other historic districts in the county — the villages of Flint Hill and Sperryville and the town of Washington — with Ben Venue being the only rural district.
According to Hallock, “In the early 2000s, DHR contracted with a private consulting firm [where Hallock worked at the time] to conduct a county-wide survey that included several areas for possible designation as rural historic districts, including F. T. Valley Road, Yancey Road and Woodville, in addition to Ben Venue Road.”
By 2008, Ben Venue Road had been formally nominated, “but the process was put on hold when the economy tanked,” said Hallock. “Then last November, county residents Hal Hunter and Alexia Morrison — who had served as ambassadors to build support in the county — were able to raise funds to continue the process. We were then able to do a full survey, which we began in December.”
What about those tax maps?
Lately there have been a couple of instances of property owners’ not being notified of actions that may affect their properties. Last winter some property owners along South Poes Road protested that they were not properly notified about an application to create a commercial dog kennel. And just last week (Aug. 13), some owners adjacent to the proposed Ben Venue Rural Historic District complained that they were not notified of the proposal. The common denominator in both cases seems to be how properties are identified using the county’s tax maps.
So what’s the problem? And just what are the tax maps anyway? The following facts were gleaned from a series of conversations with Commissioner of the Revenue Beverly S. Atkins and County Administrator John McCarthy:
- The tax map book is as thick as the New York City phone directory and as big as a desk. Each page displays a section of Rappahannock County and its land parcels.
- Atkins and her staff maintain them, updating them when plats and deeds are provided.
- The maps were created decades ago as a general visualization of properties in the county.
- Some properties that have belonged to families for generations may not have plats or deeds. Over time, the families may have split off parcels that are poorly described, have not been surveyed, and may or may not have been recorded. The maps of those parcels are less precise.
- In the 1980s the county started requiring that plats be recorded with the deeds, so anything entered from the 1980s to today is fairly accurate.
- Some county, state, or federal actions require that affected property owners and adjacent owners be notified (e.g., special-use and special-exception permit applications, the Ben Venue Rural Historic District nomination).
- Every attempt is made to identify the properties and adjacent properties when notification is required, but sometimes owners get missed because not all parcels have had a modern survey.
- Converting the paper maps to a digital geographic information system (GIS), an idea the planning commission is studying, won’t necessarily make the maps more precise. It will only digitize the existing information.
You will receive your tax bill, Atkins says, because the county’s list of property owners is comprehensive.
In May of this year, DHR submitted a 40-page National Register of Historic Places Registration Form to the National Park Service nominating the Ben Venue Rural Historic District for inclusion in the Register. The following is an excerpt from the nomination:
“Located in the northeastern portion of Rappahannock County, the Ben Venue Rural Historic District is composed of a rural landscape set in a natural valley formed by the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a cohesive agricultural and residential community dating from the area’s initial settlement period in the mid-18th century through the mid-20th century. The boundaries of the district extend along Ben Venue Road/Route 729 from the intersection of Zachary Taylor Highway/Route 522 at Flint Hill to Lee Highway/Route 211 at what was historically Gaines Crossroads.
“The district totals approximately 3,183 acres with 27 properties on 41 parcels. Resource types in the district include dwellings, slave quarters, barns, sheds, blacksmith shops, corncribs, privies, cemeteries, root cellars, springhouses, smokehouses, chicken houses, stables, garages, machine sheds, and kitchens. Vernacular forms and construction methods predominate the district and are represented by evolved hall-parlor dwellings and a small number of log buildings
“Architectural styles include vernacular interpretations of Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival. Stone walls and formal gardens are also important elements within the rural district. The organic settlement patterns remain consistent and the development generally follows the central transportation corridor, which is geographically defined and limited by the surrounding landscape. With its pastoral setting and limited non-historic intrusions, the Ben Venue Rural Historic District has a high level of integrity of location, design, setting materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.”