On Dec. 4, 1997, the Department of Historic Resources’ Senior Architectural Historian Calder Loth wrote to Richard L. Storch thanking him for three easements he had granted to the state to preserve his 73-acre Waterford property.
Noting the DHR board of directors had unanimously accepted the easements, Loth wrote: “The board members were very pleased by the prospect of protecting this critical open space.”
That protective vision wasn’t fully achieved, however. That fact didn’t come to light until late last year when a prospective buyer’s plans to operate a restaurant, bed-and-breakfast and farm-oriented events center on the property were revealed. Alongside acres of open farmland, the site includes a 18th century house, a stone bank barn and dairy barn.
Neighborhood concerns about those plans triggered the formation of a new community organization that purchased the property with the goal of completing the preservation process.
That should happen this month when two new overlay conservation easements are approved by the Land Trust of Virginia and officially recorded.
Between Dec. 4, 1997, and today lies a story that shows how even the best of intentions can go awry with evolving interpretations of historic preservation and the increasing changes in Loudoun’s rural uses.
The Hague-Hough House
The oldest extant house in the National Historic Landmark, the Hague-Hough House sits on a hill in the northwest quadrant of the village overlooking the Waterford Mill and the historic structures of Lower Main Street.
Storch, a prominent Washington, DC, real estate investor, over a 10-year period placed easements on his property with the goal of preserving the open space and the architectural integrity of the house, the earliest portion of which dates to 1747. His easements allowed the construction of one additional house and related structures, but prohibited any subdivision or commercial use of the property.
Storch died in 2012 and his family put the property on the market for $2.2 million last spring.
Enter Everheart Productions
In July, villagers were alerted to the sale of the property to Everheart Productions by Waterford Citizens Association President Ann Belland. The company is owned by Hamilton resident Jon Tigges, who also owns Zion Springs Bed & Breakfast near Hamilton.
His partner in the company, Bart Murnion, said Everheart Productions intended to purchase the Hague-Hough property and convert it to a six-room bed-and-breakfast, 45-seat restaurant and entertainment venue, as well as build two houses, three agricultural/events barns and two parking lots. Tigges, reportedly, had until Aug. 23 to proceed with the contract.
By Labor Day, a group of Waterford-area residents formed a new limited liability company, Waterford Conservation Associates, and purchased the property for just under $2 million with the intention of easing it and putting it back on the market for resale.
The group, spearheaded by Abigail Cutter, took up Loth’s vision of “protecting this critical open space” in the face of what the group saw as a commercial enterprise by Everheart Productions that would threaten the property’s agricultural setting as well as negatively impact the village.
Easements and Zoning—‘Two Different Animals’
At first, neighbors thought Storch’s easements would protect the property from the expanded bed-and-breakfast uses approved by the Board of Supervisors last year to provide more flexibility for B & B owners, increasing the permitted number of events, including weddings and concerts, from 10 per year to 20 or more, depending on property size.
In its review, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources found that Storch’s easements would not prevent Everheart’s proposed mixed agricultural and wedding, B & B, restaurant and entertainment uses.
That came as a shock to neighbors.
“That was the big surprise—we all thought it was protected,” Cutter said.
At a packed WCA meeting in early August, she and her neighbor Meredith Imwalle outlined the opposition to the project.
“We were appalled at the lack of protection that [we thought] the previous easements gave,” resident and geologist Nick Ratcliffe recalled this week.
He pointed out that easements and zoning are two different animals. The zoning changes to expand rural commercial uses that had come into play since western Loudoun was downzoned in 2000 would be permissible under Storch’s easements, according to VDHR.
Ratcliffe said he was also concerned that the VDHR interpretation could affect a lot of other easements. “If it could happen there, it could happen elsewhere,” he said.
Easements expert and resident Phillip Paschall noted that the state’s focus has shifted from protecting open space around historic buildings to protecting the continued viability of the buildings. “It’s a bit different,” he said.
Cutter said Paschall’s advice was invaluable. “He had the foresight to see what this could mean for the village,” she said.
Swinging into Action
Cutter, aided by her husband, Bowman Cutter, who grew up in the village, quickly formed a group of neighbors and others to oppose the Everheart plan. After examining the easements, Cutter said, “Dick [Storch]’s intention was clear. The house was only to be a home and the structures were for farming.”
The group concluded the only way to protect the property was to purchase it, Cutter said. “We decided to divide [the property] into two parcels—56 acres with one house permitted, for which we found a buyer, and the rest into 17 acres, including the stone barn and the dairy barn that contains a rental unit and the mansion.”
A Mad Scramble
In late August, the final settlement date was not clear, so Cutter called listing agent Washington Fine Properties to see if it were possible to submit a back-up contract.
“Yes, but do it fast—get it in by Tuesday.”
When she called a member of the Storch family, the answer was similar. “Make it really fast.”
She did. “I spent every waking moment working on it,” she said.
“Bowman, how do you put together an LLC?” she asked her husband.
She spent all day working to raise initial capital. “By night time, I had it,” she recalled with a laugh. It was not easy, as some investors pulled out, then others came in during the following weeks.
That was the Thursday before the Labor Day weekend. They almost ran out of time.
“By 3 p.m. Sunday, all the money and the signatures were in, and Bowman delivered the papers to [attorney Leland Mahan] for the LLC and on the Tuesday after Labor Day Pamela Storch signed the contract.”
“It was horrible. For a month I had nightmares—it was so stressful,” Cutter recalled.
Looking back, she said of the Cutters’ action, “It represents our commitment to Waterford and what we valued in it—small town America, where we brought up our children.” The changes proposed by Tigges, she feared, would be that Waterford “would no longer be the community we’d known.”
Kenyon, who is the local managing partner in the enterprise, said she felt similarly. She is a 20-year resident of the area with her husband, who has lived for the past eight years just below the Hague-Hough House. “Waterford is fragile, and you have to do everything in your power to protect it,” Kenyon said.
Setting Up the Easements
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust to protect the property and its natural and cultural attributes in perpetuity. Waterford is no stranger to the easement process, as, starting in the mid-1970s, the Waterford Foundation began a process of getting many of its historic houses and properties under façade or open space easements.
Donors are eligible to receive tax credits in return for giving up development rights.
For Cutter, finding the right organization through which to establish the easements was not easy.
“There is a huge variety in land conservation,” she said, listing the National Trust for Historic Preservation, VDHR, Virginia Outdoors, the Piedmont Environmental Foundation and smaller organizations such as the Land Trust of Virginia.
Time was of the essence, so the typical 18-month process required for the state easement processing would not work. The PEC’s review period was much shorter—and LTV only a month or so. Since Paschall was on the board of the LTV, he introduced Cutter to Director of Conservation and Stewardship Ashton Cole, who worked with the group on draft easements.
Founded in 1992, the trust has protected 14,770 acres in Virginia. Loudoun County heads the list at 8,529 acres, followed by Fauquier County with 3,644 acres. The trust protects battlefields, farm and agricultural lands, forestland, rivers, creeks and streams, as well as riparian areas and wetlands, mountain sides and slopes and park and recreation lands.
Cutter said she appreciated Ashton’s sound advice. The 56-acre parcel would be allowed one house with related structures, all to be built where they would not be visible from the village, while the remainder would be in a 17-acre consolidated no-build parcel, with the exception of a run-in shed for animals and a tool shed. There would be no commercial uses permitted.
“I learned that you cannot be so specific that it can’t be enforced,” Cutter said.
Once the easements are approved and recorded, the group will put the property up for sale, hopefully having permanently protected the property as Storch envisioned and recouping the investment of its donors.