It wasn't exactly "High Noon," but for the residents of Farm Colony, it was close enough.
When the auctioneer closed the bidding, whoops of joy rang throughout the antebellum farmhouse. The last pieces of land in this 289-acre community in the hills outside Stanardsville, Va., had been sold for enough to pay off all the money owed to the residents.
But final victory came only after a little sweating -- and a final showdown with the man who many of Farm Colony's residents believe was responsible for the travails of this unusual development experiment in the first place.
When it got started 10 years ago, Farm Colony was an offshoot of the cooperative or community-ownership setups increasingly common in real estate development. The idea, as residents tell it, was that, if a group of homeowners could own a golf course or a marina, why not a working farm?
The project was the brainchild of landscape architect Michael Redd and Florida millionaire Gil Edwards. Their firm, Farm Development Corp., with Redd as president, acquired a 289-acre farm in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and began selling two-acre lots. Purchasers were allowed to build houses on their land, although the lots were carefully planned so the houses -- some quite elaborate, as it turned out -- would be on land too steep for agricultural use.
The approximately 200 acres of farmland and woods around the lots were jointly owned, including the animals, vineyards, forest and farmhouse that went with it. A farm manager was hired to take care of the chores, although the residents could pitch in as much as they liked. And those lot owners who chose to live during the week in nearby Charlottesville or Washington, some 100 miles away, could sleep in the farmhouse. During the day, they could ride the horses, fish in the streams and otherwise escape the worries of city life.
The possibility of enjoying a semblance of farm life without the accompanying responsibilities was enough to attract some 40 families, including doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and retired military officers and government bureaucrats.
In the late '70s, however, the dream soured, when the homeowners got into a dispute with the corporation over terms of their contract. The homeowners felt that the roads that were supposed to link the various lots were not built according to the agreed-upon standards, and they filed a suit to force the developers to pay up, winning a judgment of just over $70,000, according to Francis McQ. Laurence, a Charlotesville lawyer representing the Farm Colony Homeowners Association.
The problem was, Laurence said, that Farm Development Corp. had virtually no assets, except a couple of mortgage loans and about a dozen unsold lots. These mortgage loans and some of the lots were sold to pay down some of the corporation's debts, but it was not enough. Finally, the court ordered that the remaining lots be auctioned off in an effort to clear the books.
The auction was held last Saturday in the common room of Farm Colony's refurbished farmhouse. The house is an unusual melding of the old and the new; a modern roof has been built over the open space between the original house and the old-style separate country kitchen, both of which date back more than 100 years, according to residents.
Jars of apple butter and homemade brownies were spread out on tables throughout the room, as prospective bidders from all around Virginia and beyond settled in for the action.
For the homeowners themselves, the arithmetic of the auction was simple enough: For them to break even, the lots had to go for a total of $56,000. They were still owed some $26,000 as a result of their dispute, but other costs -- delinquent taxes, past homeowner dues, the price of the sale itself -- had to be paid first.
When the first round of bidding was done, all seven lots had been sold separately for a total of $52,600, a comparative steal given that a single lot had sold originally for some $20,000. But itstill would be enough to eliminate most, though not all, of the homeowners' financial entanglement with the developers.
There was a catch, though. Under the terms of the auction, the seven lots could then could be auctioned as a package. If A bidder were willing to pay more than the $52,600, he could take all of the lots, irrespective of the individual buyers.
At the final minute, there appeared to be such a financially-well-heeled bidder: Michael Redd himself. This was the man who thought of the Farm Colony idea in the first place and who, although he has subsequently broken off away from the moribund development corporation, is associated with its difficulties in the minds of many of Farm Colony's residents. When the bidding opened again, Redd offered $52,700 for all the lots.
A palpable unease could be felt throughout the room. As residents explained it later, no one had any idea what Redd wanted to do with the property. Redd said later that his interest represented a "business decision," elaborating no further. but residents are more skeptical. Says one: "The guy's despised. I'm surprised he didn't get knifed when he walked through here."
The ice was broken when, suddenly, a hand shot up in the back of the room, heeding the auctioneer's call for a bid at $52,800. Redd turned, looking surprised, and moved the bidding up another $100.
But his effort went for naught. What Redd doesn't know is that The families that had won the bidding in the first round, some of whom had just met for the first time, had agreed to pool resources and up the ante by as much as $13,000 if necessary to win the property.
"We were all going to lose if the other guy bought them all," said Galen Morris, a retired mailman who lives nearby and who bid on behalf of the newly formed consortium. "My daughter wanted them so bad, I hated to see them lose." Barking out his bids in rapid fire -- in order, he said later, to make Redd think he wouldn't back down no matter the cost -- Morris finally won with an offer of $56,000
"We came out okay," a happy William Dichtel, president of the homeowners association and a retired Navy physicist, said afterward. "We got good people on the lots, and we recovered our past monies." After years of haggling and financial worries, he and his neighbors can finally can go back to milking the cows in peace.