The second battle of Chancellorsville

It may be worth taking a little walk through the Chancellorsville battlefield mess as there is now a lull in the conflict.

The story begins with county planners allowing for rapid commercial and residential growth in their jurisdiction over a number of years. As a popular backlash begins to form against these policies, a local would-be-developer and Spotsylvania funeral director, John Mullins, gives up on his own development plans and begins to sell off parcels of land he has accumulated over the years. This is the so-called "Mullins Farm." Some of the land is Chancellorsville battleground.

Mullins becomes the lightning rod for anti-growth sentiment. A sympathetic letter writer makes these important points:

"… one would think that John Mullins had invented growth in Spotsylvania. […] Mullins is not responsible for the unrealistic growth approved by past and present boards," and "No one should have to go through what the Mullins' family has with regard to property they own and wish to sell."

Have a look at this, which sets the stage.

Civil War Preservation Trust, on learning or assuming that Mullins would sell his land, began talking publicly about buying the land. In other words, it began acting on public opinion and local officials so as to soften any future Mullins negotiating position. This is a high-risk, aggressive negotiating ploy. "Mullins has said he never received a firm offer from the preservationists and grew tired of seeing them quoted in the newspaper saying they wanted to buy his land."

Note that CWPT, with 2003 assets of over $15 million and a members' mandate to buy battlefields, takes great pride in broadcasting its ethic of never "overpaying" for battlefield land – a boast that is a recipe for disaster in this case and in every other case. (As a land buyer, you want your reputation to be that sellers are more than satisfied in their dealings with you.)

This article gives good background information on Mullins' property.

Toll Brothers then bought some Mullins land and optioned additional acreage. Toll Brothers' options seem to have lapsed, so Mullins is selling another of his parcels to a developer called Tricord. Tricord appears willing to sell a restrictive covenant agreement to CWPT; Tricord would build its complex on battlefield land and then leave some green space around their development, in exchange for a negotiated sum. The Tricord green space would remain private property.

According to this editorial, the county has stepped in to threaten Mullins with a withholding of sewer and water connections if he does not come to terms with CWPT (and Tricord).

I agree with the letter-writer (first link, above) who said, "If the Mullins Farm was rezoned to allow county hook-up, then it should remain so."

This looks like CWPT using local politicians to play hardball in order to buy a worthless easement on land slated for development – a total lose/lose situation. It is transparently nasty. John Mullins has collected his go-to-hell money and that should make him pressure-proof. The local editorial writers can sense the underlying reality of this situation but are loath to accept it:

If Mr. Mullins cuts a deal with preservationists, the county, and developers of the more sensitive sort that safeguards significant historic acreage, he will get water and sewer privileges for his commercial visions; if he balks, he may not. How this ad-hoc tit-for-tat would hold up in court in a property-rights state is anybody's guess.

Nonsense, the expected outcome favors Mullins.

In the botched attempt to preserve this piece of Chancellorsville battlefield, the only questions are about Mullins’ hassle threshhold and level of anger. Whether he capitulates depends on how he feels about paying legal fees.

CWPT facilitating Tricord building on Chancellorsville battlefield is a little out of line with its mission. The facilitation works like this: the negotiated price Tricord eventually pays Mullins has factored into it the cash payment Tricord will receive from CWPT in exchange for selling CWPT an easement on the property. In other words, paying for an easement allows Tricord to bid higher.

There is no accountability for Mullins outside of his own conscience and standards. Nor is there accountability for CWPT, whose contributors appear content with the Trust's present management.

The comical note struck in this tragedy comes from CWPT's spokesman, who says "We're certainly not a cash cow, but the money's there for this deal." The money was there to pre-empt the original Toll Brothers deal by buying land and it was there to pre-empt the new Tricord deal by buying land. The money is there now - not just to buy an easement from Tricord - but to buy out Tricord lock, stock, and barrel after it makes a deal with Mullins.

The money is there, has been there, but where is the will?