Donald Trump isn’t the only outside business tycoon looking to bring a Midas touch to the rural countryside surrounding Charlottesville.
While Trump scooped up the Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard earlier this month after its foreclosure, a West Virginia businessman who acquired 4,500 acres in Albemarle County south of Ash Lawn-Highland and Monticello late last year is speaking publicly for the first time about his purchase.
James C. Justice II, CEO of a family-run West Virginia company known for its coal mining, farming and timber operations, purchased 55 parcels of timber land from MeadWestvaco Corp. for $23.75 million in a deal that closed last December. [ See location map ]
Like Trump, Justice has a penchant for turn-around projects. Justice bought The Greenbrier resort in 2009 when it was facing bankruptcy. Under his leadership, he has added an underground casino and secured a six-year deal with the PGA Tour to hold the Greenbrier Classic on the resort’s Old White golf course.
“He is very focused on building the hotel here, and he has entered a number of interesting marketing relationships,” said Duane Zobrist II, CEO of Greenbrier Outfitters, a contract company that has provided outdoor activities for Greenbrier guests over the past 17 years.
“He has this historic property with rich history; he wants to turn it profitable, and still keep the essence of the property,” Zobrist said. “People said there was no way to create a casino that fits in, yet it ties into the hotel beautifully, and he has updated it in a very responsible way.”
However, Justice’s December acquisition of 4,500 acres at a price greater than its assessed value had some local real estate experts scratching their heads. It was too high a price, they said, for a rural housing development, and the land no longer had short-term value for timber operations.
MeadWestvaco said the property was “no longer strategic for the company’s needs.” It had advertised the property as the Presidential Estates, given its proximity to the homes of James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The advertised price was $38.5 million and the land, zoned for rural use, had an assessed value of $21.5 million when it sold to Justice for $2.25 million over the assessment.
“In all honesty, I don’t have a grand master plan here as to what I am going to do with the property,” Justice said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow. “It surely has the development possibilities, from a lot of different angles including home sites or whatever, but it also has such an incredible historical value.”
“Just like anything, you buy a big piece of property like that and everyone thinks you have an immediate plan and you are going to build 18 racetracks, 17 golf courses and 15 Wal-Marts there,” Justice said. “The real truth is that it was an attractive buy in a part of the world that I dearly love.”
Justice said his connections to Charlottesville date back to the 1970s when he was a patient of Dr. Frank McCue, an orthopedic surgeon for the University of Virginia athletic program from 1961 to 2003. Justice played golf in college while attending the University of Tennessee and then Marshall University.
Justice said McCue operated on him a couple of times and that the “university icon” is a great personal friend. McCue also grew up in West Virginia and he and Justice both attended Greenbrier Military Academy.
“He is a genuinely good person, and in Greenbrier County, what everyone is proud of is The Greenbrier hotel,” McCue said. “He has done a lot for the people he is involved with and I am tremendously impressed with him as a human being.”
McCue said that Justice’s love of athletics and Marshall University led him to fly athletes to Charlottesville on his private plane to receive care at UVa. Justice even took an interest in his physician’s longhorn cattle.
“Two years ago when it was so dry, he called me up and asked me if I needed some hay,” McCue said. “I said, ‘They are starving to death,’ and he sent two trailers of hay from Monroe County. Then he called back later to see how my cows were doing.”
While juggling his corporate responsibilities, Justice is also head coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team. Greenbrier Outfitters’ Zobrist said his daughter Hampton played on the team last year.
“He told the girls he does three things really well,” Zobrist said, retelling the coach’s talk. “He said, ‘I can coach basketball, I can shoot a shotgun and I can close a deal.’”
Hampton Zobrist’s grandfather is Duane Zobrist, chairman of the Albemarle County Planning Commission. The senior Zobrist says he has met Justice several times and that he hopes conservation will be part of Justice’s plans in Albemarle.
“I think on that property, a great idea would be a preservation development where they retain the farming, like the Bundoran development [in North Garden],” Zobrist said. “I know they have done some major conservation projects in West Virginia, and I know him to be a good steward of the land.”
Lonnie Murray is chairman of the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee , which advises the Board of Supervisors on land use decisions. He also is serving on the advisory committee planning Biscuit Run State Park .
“We haven’t developed a lot of feasible economic approaches for a piece of land like that where people can walk away with a profit without massive destruction,” Murray said. “Something will have to happen that justifies his return on investment, whereas, had a conservation agency purchased it, they wouldn’t be looking for an economic return.”
“With a new state park in the backyard, it seems like something we may see more of throughout the county as people look to develop timeshares and resorts next to the park,” Murray added.
Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello , said the view to the south from the president’s home has remained much as Jefferson would have seen it.
“We think it is incredibly significant that we still have these views, and it’s partly why we were given World Heritage site status by UNESCO,” Bowman said in an interview inside Jefferson’s garden pavilion. “It’s also really significant to the 450,000 people a year who come to this site.”
Justice said he wants to be a good neighbor and he is aware of Monticello’s concerns about its viewshed.
“I will be someone that will be very open-minded to look at all the possibilities of what can be done with the property that will be good for all concerned,” Justice said. “From the conservation aspect, from the viewshed aspect, from the historical aspect, from the economic aspect, I will be completely open to alternatives that anyone can put on the table that would make good sense [where we can] try and meet all those criteria.”
“I am delighted that [Mr. Justice] is very open to working with us and talking to his neighbors,” Bowman said. “I very much look forward to welcoming him to Monticello and talking through what some of the options are that can be a win-win for all of us.”
After visiting the site, the bottom line for this businessman was that it was “a wonderful piece of property in the right part of the world.”
“I am a true lover of nature and being able to hunt and fish, I grew up that way all my life, and I do as many conservation things as I can possibly do, while at the same time doing good economic things that bring jobs to a community,” Justice said. “I have, more than you will ever know, a love and respect for the Charlottesville area.”
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