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Developer aims for vacation cabins, winery and more in Nelson County
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Developer aims for vacation cabins, winery and more in Nelson County

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A Charlottesville-based firm has plans to develop vacation houses, a farm winery and associated infrastructure called Rockfish Ranch on about 120 acres in Shipman.

The preliminary site plan from Rockfish Ranch, LLC, came before the Nelson County Planning Commission during its Oct. 27 meeting. The property at 45 Quarter Lane in Shipman is zoned Agricultural (A-1) and proposed by-right uses include a farm winery and vineyard, equestrian area and agritourism activities, 25 vacation cabins and associated accessory uses and infrastructure, according to county documents.

The by-right status means the site plan application does not require a public hearing as part of a special use permit or rezoning review process as it goes before county officials. Dylan Bishop, director of planning and zoning, said of if any permanent structures are proposed with the project in the future, a special use permit for events in that structure would be required.

So far in the process, uses proposed in application are by-right uses, according to Bishop. Vacation houses were added as a by-right use to the zoning ordinance in 2016 and are defined as a “house rental to transients,” Bishop said.

The farm winery operation is a by-right use regulated by Virginia ABC. Several existing structures on the property will remain to support agritourism and recreational activities and proposed construction includes the 25 cabins, including one- and two-bedroom units at just less than 800 square feet, according to the application.

The majority of the cabins are proposed to be located at the top of the site’s ridgeline, where there is a steep slope to the Rockfish River, Bishop said.

The site plan indicates an online water treatment and distribution system is proposed with existing and proposed wells and a pump house, Bishop said. The applicant proposes multiple on-site private septic systems and drainfields and is working with the Virginia Department of Transportation on a proposed entrance, and a reduction in shoulder width is requested to minimize environmental effects from land disturbance, Bishop said.

The property will have nature trails, fishing, horseback riding and sight-seeing activities, mainly to cater to the short-term rental guests, the application states. Bishop said the application would come back to the planning commission for a final site plan review at a later date.

“This is just getting it in front of you guys if you have preliminary comments,” Bishop said to commissioners.

When it comes back for the commission’s review, the project’s design should be completed and required approvals from other agencies would be expected, Bishop said.

Rockfish Ranch representative Travis Wilburn, in a Sept. 30 email to neighbors of the property and county officials, said anyone is welcome to come by and tour the property. He wrote Rockfish Ranch, LLC has withdrawn an intended special use permit application and proceeded with the by-right aspect.

“Over time, and in consultation with the County and our neighbors, we will develop lodging, gardens, ideally horses, and wine grapes,” Wilburn wrote in the email. “The idea of Rockfish Ranch is to embrace nature and enjoy it. Our goal is to disturb the least amount of land and trees as possible.”

“If you’re familiar with Calistoga Ranch in Napa, that’s sort of what we are modeling after,” Wilburn said in an interview with the Nelson County Times. “Calistoga, unfortunately, burned down because they embraced nature too well. It was built in the trees...but we’re essentially trying to do the same model here as we see this Central Virginia being a well-supported wine region.”

County resident Anne Norwood, who lives on Stagebridge Road near the Rockfish Ranch site and was among those Wilburn sent the email to, addressed the project at the Nelson County Board of Supervisors’ October meeting during the public comments session. Norwood spoke against the farm winery and cabin units being allowed by right and described the allowance as an “appalling subversion of the zoning ordinance.”

“It is imperative that you make significant changes to county ordinances to declare intention of by-right privileges,” Norwood told supervisors. “If an out-of-town commercial corporation can develop an expansive resort with event venues and lodging without ever having to go through the special use permit process, then there’s been a failure of the county zoning ordinance, a failure of common sense and a failure of county leadership.”

Barbara White, a Stagebridge Road resident, also told supervisors during the October meeting the project has her deeply concerned regarding potential impact on the Rockfish River. White said she and her husband found their current property, which is just downstream from the Rockfish Ranch site, and immensely enjoy it.

She said she worries about potential damage to the river from dozens of guests during stays at the cabins. While many will be respectful of the water she fears some will not be, she said.

“It is not hard to imagine the majority of these people going to the river,” White said to the board. “…Please protect the Rockfish River.”

Wilburn referenced such concerns in the Sept. 30 email and insisted the property’s uses would be respectful of neighbors.

“If we were to create noise, trash, runoff in the river, or any of the concerns we’ve heard floating around, we would be doing the absolute opposite of the intent of the Ranch, people will not want to come, and we will fail,” Wilburn wrote.

Wilburn said in the email Rockfish Ranch, LLC has no interest in hurting “what is best about Nelson County — the beautiful land and good neighbors!”

“Rockfish Ranch is going to be a place that will make Nelson County proud and add to the county’s revenue base,” he said in the email.

Reporter Bryson Gordon contributed.

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