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Creating a historical Albemarle County land map was 'like a jigsaw puzzle' for Lovingston man

A Lovingston man has created another historical land map of a Virginia county.

Mike Crabill estimates that he spent about 3,500 hours over two years researching and drawing original land patents and grants to create his map of Albemarle County.

“It’s very much like a jigsaw puzzle,” Crabill said. “That’s what makes it fun for me, is when you think, ‘Aha! This one goes right there.’ But it takes a lot of [patents] to really get the information down to where you can start plotting a whole lot of them.”

He attempted to include all colonial land patents and land grants from around 1722 to 1800, but he said the map isn’t perfect and does have some blank spots.

Albemarle was established in 1744 out of Goochland County; the present boundaries were established in 1777.

Crabill used land patents and grants from the Library of Virginia to create his Albemarle map, after previously doing the same for Nelson and Amherst counties.

“At that time, you had to drive to Richmond to get the information,” he said. “When I was doing the first one, the Nelson County map, I took numerous trips down there and put probably $200 or $300 worth of quarters into the copy machine. Now life is easy, you just punch it up on the computer.”

He got the idea to make his Nelson map years ago while working for a surveying company in the county and doing research.

“A number of times, you hit a brick wall when you’re trying to take this research back in time,” he said. “You go and you’ll follow the trail of deeds back to 1850, say, and all of a sudden it disappears.”

“It occurred to me, trying to do this surveying research, that, possibly, if you started at the other end of time, you might be able to piece together what you lost in 1850 and make some sense out of it,” he said.

Crabill used the written descriptions of the parcels, which sometimes list rivers, roads and adjoining property owners that give him “a hint,” to draw the parcels.

“If I find one I think I can place on the [topographical] map by the amount of evidence that they give me, then I do it,” he said. “Usually I have to collect 30 or 40 land patents before I can start putting them together.”

There are a number of ways errors can happen, he said, from the mistakes in the original patent to issues with digitizing the patent. Also, he “can screw it up as well as anybody.”

“Some people ask me, ‘are these things absolutely accurate,’ and the answer to that is no, none of them, not a single one in here is absolutely accurate,” he said. “The accuracy is better where there’s a whole cluster of patents where you have adjoining jigsaw puzzle pieces to stick together.”

He knows of one error already, in the Scottsville area, where a patent he found referred to an even earlier patent.

“The library had it written up as James Shelton, and I went all the way through there looking for James Shelton,” Crabill said. “Since I’ve published this, I’ve discovered that the guy’s name was actually Skelton.”

A print of the map is hanging in the records room at the Albemarle County Circuit Court, with an addendum showing the list of properties on the map by landowner and some properties that didn’t make it onto the map.

“You don’t know what a big hit this has been,” Jon Zug, clerk of Albemarle Circuit Court, said to Crabill last week.

Prints of Crabill’s Albemarle map are available for purchase at a variety of local stores, including The Virginia Shop at Barracks Road Shopping Center and New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall, and on his website,

He said he does not plan to do another county map.

“I’ve kind of concluded that I’m too old to do another one,” he said. “I miss doing it, though. I enjoyed it.”

Impact of West2nd's demise concerns leaders

City leaders say they hope the surprise collapse of the West2nd condo and retail project in downtown Charlottesville won’t deter future developers from working with the city.

Keith Woodard’s announcement Tuesday that he was canceling his $50 million multi-use development set off alarm bells among some in the local business community and on the City Council.

Phil Sparks, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he supported Woodard and the project since it was first proposed, and was surprised by the cancellation.

“We need a vibrant downtown, and it was an exciting project,” Sparks said. “The only thing we don’t want to see is frustration from this project chase away good projects in the future.”

Downtown is totally different now than five years ago when Woodard answered the city’s requests for proposals, Sparks said. But when a project this large is planned, developers need assurances that, if they follow the steps, their projects will get approved.

Woodard cited pushback from city leadership and delays in approvals as factors in his decision.

On Aug. 21, the city’s Board of Architectural Review voted, 5-3, to not recommend the plan to City Council.

On Friday, an attorney submitted an appeal of the August BAR decision, saying, in a letter, that the denial is “inappropriate and improper as a matter of law.”

Susan Payne, president of the Blue Ridge Group and a spokeswoman for Woodard, said Saturday in an email that the appeal is a placeholder for the next developer in line so the process does not need to start from the beginning. She also said the decision to end the development has not changed.

Three city councilors voted against a special-use permit that would have allowed increased density and height for the project in February.

Heather Hill, one of the opposing councilors, wrote in an email Wednesday that she still viewed the project as a good opportunity for the city.

“I am certainly committed to evaluating partnerships, including with Mr. Woodard, that may open the door for other visions for this site’s development, working towards an outcome that is reflective of the location and context of this unique site, is financially feasible, and addresses needs of our community.”

Hill and Councilor Wes Bellamy voted in favor of the special-use permit when it was re-submitted in April. Mayor Nikuyah Walker dissented in both votes, and declined to comment on the project last week.

A condition for the permit’s eventual passage was the construction of affordable housing units, to be subsidized by the city, on Harris Street.

In an email Wednesday, Councilor Mike Signer said he was alarmed by Woodard’s decision and that the project’s failure would further squeeze housing options downtown.

“We need to be able to efficiently stay the course on important, albeit complicated, projects like this, that meet important city commitments and objectives,” Signer wrote. “The developer put millions of dollars into undergrounding utilities. And the project would have provided almost $1 million of annual tax revenues, which council wanted to dedicate to funding affordable housing.”

While acknowledging the West2nd project had inherent challenges, commercial leasing agent John Pritzlaff IV said the project’s demise highlights how difficult it has become to build in Charlottesville unless it is already permissible under the existing zoning.

“People are not willing to go to City Council to try to develop something with higher density or a special-use permit because they can’t forecast what concessions they’re going to have to make,” Pritzlaff said. “It’s always been a harder place to build, but now you can’t go in knowing how many rent-controlled units you will have to build or whether you’re going into a meeting that will turn into an argument.”​

According to Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director, the West2nd project was to be built on six parcels of the parking lot where the City Market currently is held.

One of the parcels is already owned by Market Plaza LLC, Woodard’s company, and five are owned by the city; the city’s parcels have been under pending contracts to be sold to Market Plaza LLC since January 2016.

On Thursday, Engel said the city had not yet received official notice requesting cancellation of the contract, but with Woodard’s announcement, it is expected.

West2nd was supposed to open in summer 2020 and house high-end condos, retail and office space, as well as a permanent home for the City Market.

“If you look at the time and money the city and Keith have put into the process, it’s just a shame for it not to go forward,” Sparks said. “It’s still a wonderful place to build something; we’re just not sure what it will be.”

Daily Progress staff writers Melissa Castro and Allison Wrabel contributed to this story.

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What is the significance of WillowTree's future move to the county?

Sometimes a line is just a line, an arbitrary, random squiggle — one you draw in the sand, part in your hair or drive across without noticing.

But when that line is the border between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, a company choosing to cross it can raise uncomfortable questions.

In the case of WillowTree Inc., which announced on Aug. 27 that it is spending $20.6 million to move from the Downtown Mall to the Woolen Mills factory in Albemarle, the questions began before the champagne was uncorked. And the questions only intensified the next day, when it was announced that developer Keith Woodard canceled his plans for a major downtown project.

“What did Mike Signer do to stop his employer, [WillowTree, where he serves as general counsel], from leaving the city and taking those jobs and revenues to the county?” asked one concerned citizen in an email to The Daily Progress.

“Consistent with my obligations as a Virginia elected official, I have never participated in any decisions or discussions about WillowTree with any city officials,” Signer replied to The Progress, also via email.

Signer acknowledged that he served as WillowTree’s legal counsel for the relocation discussions with the county and state, but said it would have been nearly impossible to squeeze WillowTree into the confines of city real estate, where the vacancy rate at existing office buildings is virtually zero and new downtown construction will cost almost 30 percent more than the deal at Woolen Mills. The revitalization project at the historic factory is being subsidized by approximately $4 million in state and county grants.

“Companies like WillowTree helped create the economic success of the Downtown Mall, but that very success made it difficult for the company to find a single new space for up to 500 employees,” Signer said.

* * *

When WillowTree CEO Tobias Dengel set out to find a new home for the burgeoning digital media company he leads, he had at least three goals: He wanted to stay close to downtown, he wanted everyone under the same roof and he wanted to keep costs low enough to maintain one of WillowTree’s biggest advantages when it competes with firms in New York, San Francisco or even Austin, Texas.

The company currently has more than 200 employees occupying about 33,000 square feet across a total of 11 floors in five different buildings in Charlottesville. It also has more than 70 employees in Durham, North Carolina, where it was given a relocation incentive package.

“When we started the company, we were basically a group of five to 10 folks who wanted to prove that anything that can get built in San Francisco or New York, we can do right here, despite the fact that we were located in Central Virginia,” Dengel said in his public remarks announcing the deal.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve realized it wasn’t despite that fact — it was because we were located here that we’ve been so successful,” he said.

Dengel went on to outline his beliefs about work culture, including the value of face-to-face collaboration and short commutes that allow people to “blend” their work and home lives.

Citing statistics and quoting author Malcolm Gladwell, Dengel intoned: “Innovation is primarily a social activity.” (He also cited Steve Jobs’ foiled plan to have just one set of bathrooms at Pixar headquarters, but admitted that might not have been Jobs’ greatest idea.)

Still, “If you are in the same room with someone on your team, you have six times more communication than if you’re on another floor; and Harvard recently released a study that face-to-face communication is 34 times — 34 times — as effective as email at resolving issues,” Dengel said.

Meanwhile, in sprawling and expensive metropolitan areas, rather than spending several hours a day driving to work, more employees are working in isolation in order to telecommute — and employers are allowing it in order to save on real estate costs.

“Real estate there costs about four times what it costs here. So that’s the advantage of being in a place like Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Dengel said. “We can all be here together every day.”


* * *

Although Signer did not negotiate with the city on WillowTree’s behalf, Charlottesville officials were well aware of the company’s need to consolidate and expand, according to Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director.

They also knew WillowTree had serious suitors in Albemarle, Durham and perhaps others, he said. WillowTree could not be reached for comment for this story.

Although there are downtown office projects on the books that could have accommodated the company’s space needs — such as 3Twenty3 and possibly Dairy Central, in a squeeze — downtown scarcity and vertical parking facilities drive rents upward.

While WillowTree will pay about $24 per square foot at Woolen Mills, asking rents for new downtown developments are in the mid-$30s per square foot, according to the 2017 CB Richard Ellis market report.

So, instead of paying $20.6 million over 10 years, WillowTree would have been on the hook for closer to $30 million, if it took the same 85,000 square feet it has agreed to lease in the county — assuming no city or state incentives to defray the cost.

However, Engel said, “there was a similar incentive package in place from the city, but the Woolen Mills option can accommodate all their space needs and ultimately worked better with their budget.”


* * *

Although the loss of WillowTree highlights the challenges the city faces in growing and retaining businesses, the overall economic impact may be insignificant in the short term, according to Terance Rephann, a regional economist who did the impact analysis for Albemarle County.

Real property taxes, the city’s largest revenue source, could suffer a minor impact at most, Rephann said in an email.

“Workers will not change residences in the short run because of [a] relatively minor change in commuting route,” he wrote. However, there might be a slight decrease in downtown commercial property values if vacancy rates increase, he said.

The city will lose some personal property taxes for WillowTree’s equipment, and sales tax revenue could decline as fewer WillowTree employees shop and dine downtown, Rephann said.

But those potential losses also could be balanced out as WillowTree adds even more people to its roster and provides free shuttles to the Downtown Mall, he said.

Between 2019 and 2025, WillowTree’s presence and growth in the county is expected to generate 1,412 jobs throughout the area, including 620 of them at the firm itself, according to Rephann’s study.

By 2025, the firm’s presence is expected to spur $148.6 million of value-added economic activity throughout the Charlottesville metro area.

As Engel put it: “They’re not ‘leaving the city.’ They’re growing into the county, and the city, county and the company all win by being able to keep them in this region. The boundaries are random, so companies don’t look at that when they make their business decisions. They just want to know where their business will prosper.”