It’s captivating to watch Vickie Seacrist feed the deer that mill around her front yard like lazy cats. On any given morning she can be found amidst about a dozen deer, a few of them casually eating from her hand.
“My family was one of the first” to move into VC Trailer Park, said Seacrist.
She’s now lived on Mike’s Landing for more than 50 years.
“We love living over here,” said Madeline Mayberry one afternoon as she stepped outside to enjoy a cigarette. She waves at a neighbor on the porch across the road and talks about how peaceful the park is.
“We are a community here. We are a family,” she said.
But, as the state sets out to pay off the debts owed on The Central Virginia Training Center — the one gateway into the park — she and her neighbors worry.
“There is a fear that if you make changes, someone might up and sell,” Mayberry said. “It’s scary. It’s really scary because we don’t know where it’s going to leave us.”
CVTC was one of several state-run hospitals closed in 2020 following a federal ruling calling for its residents to be relocated into community housing. The sprawling property — replete with dilapidated buildings, contaminated land and graves — is haunted by a complicated past. Virginia once performed forced sterilizations on women there. It also provided skilled care for thousands of individuals with severe disabilities.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia spent decades on this hill, built 90 buildings up there, many of them are full of asbestos and it’s just a tremendous scab in Amherst County, on what could be pretty prime land,” said Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford County) who asked for, and this week received, $25 million in the state budget to pay off the state’s outstanding debts on the property.
There is now an eight-step process to complete to “defease” the bonds. Newman expects that process to be complete by this fall.
“It feels like it’s just been years in the making. And that’s because it has. So it’s a really big deal and we’re excited,” Newman said Tuesday. “I think it’s gonna be a big economic development opportunity for our region.”
Once the bond is paid off Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services can send a letter to the Department of General Services declaring CVTC to be “surplus” property.
DGS is responsible for selling the property, either as a whole or in pieces. The property will first be offered to other government agencies that may have a use for it. Amherst County, which will get 180 days to proffer a plan for the property, will not make a bid to purchase it.
“I don’t see us making a decision to move forward and keep it in government [use] or even in state government [use] even though it’s property that we own now. I think that we want to make sure we get the best use of the property, not the one that is easiest for us to do,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County.
What this isn’t
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, is no longer suggesting CVTC be turned into a Crisis Receiving Center. “We left off that language at the last minute about the training center, and we did that because one, we think there might be better locations for that that may be more central and number two, is we don’t want there to be any activity on that property. That would be a problem [when] defeasing the bonds.” Newman said this week.
Instead the General Assembly has allocated funds for Horizon Behavioral Health, the community service board for the Lynchburg area, to develop and implement a crisis receiving center for those aged 18 and older. It would serve the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Lynchburg City. Horizon will create an advisory board with local law enforcement representatives to govern the crisis receiving center.
Barker supported Newman’s bill for funding to pay off CVTC bonds.
“I’ve been heavily involved in [legislation] with Senator Newman on a lot of things over the years. He and I work together quite well, so I’m automatically a little bit predisposed to support something that he’s in favor of in your area down there,” said Barker.
Booming state revenue was key to getting the bill passed, they said.
“We have a situation where we had the opportunity to be able to [pay the bond] without it having a big negative impact on the state budget, because the revenues that we have right now are substantial, very substantial,” said Barker.
Once the outstanding bond has been paid, “environmental concerns addressed, utility reconfigurations identified, and any historic or natural resources identified, it will take a little over six (6) months to have the property listed by a broker,” according to the state.
It will be at least a year before the property can be put on the market.
“The news is great. CVTC can now move on to its new life, whatever that may be,” said Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers. “We are hopeful that its new life will be of great benefit to the county and the region.”
The costs for demolition — estimated at more than $20 million — and hazardous material cleanup all fall to the new owner. The land itself, a 344-acre parcel, was assessed at $2.7 million in 2020 by the county.
Randy Lee remembers when his father Aubrey purchased more than 200 acres of land overlooking the James River behind CVTC, which once provided 25% of the county’s jobs.
Randy was a teenager, maybe about 14 years old then. His dad was selling mobile homes and wanted to provide buyers with a location for their new homes.
Leaving as much of the forest intact as they could, the Lees carved just a few roads onto the steep hillside. Seacrist’s street leads right down to the banks of the James River where residents have pig roasts, fish fries and concerts.
The property now falls under the ownership of Lee Corporation, LLC.
Linda Woody and Lindy Hackett love the Lee family.
When Hacket and Woody decided to move out of the park because they wanted to get a double wide, it was Randy’s brother Mike who carved Lily Lane into the woods and cleared a spot just for them. They’ve been there for 21 years now.
Randy Lee, now nearing 70, maintains the property with his son David.
It’s David who rhapsodizes the land. While making maintenance rounds he stops just briefly to name all the women in the family who worked on the Morrisania Farm and CVTC.
The land is part of their family legacy.
For years Amherst County has been crafting a plan for the future with the redevelopment of the CVTC property serving as a kind of lynchpin.
“When I was hired almost eight years ago, it was ‘The training center is about to close. Get on top of that, make sure you get in front of that,’” Rodgers said.
Zoning is, and will continue to be, key.
The CVTC area “will be zoned for the types of things that are in the [comprehensive] plan. Basically, it’s called mixed-use so it’s a mixture of commercial and residential, maybe even light industrial,” Rodgers said. “That’s how we keep the Department of General Services from selling [CVTC] to Bubba for $1 so he can build a hog rendering plant. Because Bubba might buy it for $1 but he’s then got to follow our comprehensive plan. Amherst doesn’t have that area zoned for hog ranch.”
Just a few miles away, on Business 29, the county envisions a town center for Madison Heights.
It needs “a center of gravity, a place to say ‘Yes, this is Madison Heights. You’re in it right now’,” Rodgers said.
Sam Patel is asking the county to rezone almost 10 acres of land near his home. Initially he wants to build 108 apartments. Long term though he wants a 150-plus acre mixed-use development with civic buildings, gas stations, apartments, playgrounds, townhouses, pool, dog parks, patio homes, a church and sports fields.
If all goes according to script, Patels dream, the CVTC redevelopment plan, VDOTs redesign of Business 29, and a National Park Service trail plan, will all be woven into the Madison Heights Master Plan. The county is currently conducting Envision Madison Heights surveys — Envisionmadisonheights.com — asking the public to weigh in on what they want the area to look like in the future. The county anticipates adoption of a final Master Plan for Madison Heights in Jan. of 2023.
All of these are likely to be woven into the county’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan
For now, it’s all just pictures and paper.
The focus of the Training Center Redevelopment Plan created by the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is the roughly 350-acre site owned, and still maintained, by DBHDS. The steep terrain means about 110 acres of it can be developed.
“Of course the value of the plan is not the book with the pretty pictures. That’s almost irrelevant. What matters is the economic research that was done,” said Rodgers. It gives a developer leverage to obtain funding for their project.
The VC Trailer Park property was included in the plan for the sole purpose of informing a potential developer of the site.
“This redevelopment plan is about the 350 acres that is state-owned property. That’s really our focus and that will always be our focus,” said Megan Lucas with the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, Chamber and Economic Development.
“In the event the Lee family decides to do something different with their property that’s up to them, because the land is privately owned. … The families that live at the mobile home park, to the best of our knowledge, their homes are secure. As long as the Lee family wants it to be that way.”
Randy Lee has little to no interest in talking about the CVTC redevelopment plan.
“We have no plans to sell the land,” said Lee. “We haven’t talked about it or even thought about it.”
Mike Lee told Dean Rodgers the same thing when he attended the public redevelopment meetings. Lee pointed out that the park is home to the descendents of many of its original residents.
“I spent time talking to Mike [at the meetings],” said Rodgers. “I said ‘Mike, you don’t have to do anything. You know, this is just an idea. You can sell this property. You could build homes on it yourself. You could sell it to a developer, you can partner with a developer. You can do anything you want.’”
And then he voiced one of Ronda Campbell’s greatest fears. She’s lived in the park for more than 30 years and is excited about the prospect of a developer putting restaurants and grocery stores close to VC Trailer Park. But she doesn’t want to move.
“Eventually somebody’s gonna come in with so much money they’re not going to be able to say no,” Rodgers said.
“No matter what you do, no matter where you do it, if it’s in somebody’s backyard, they will oppose [it]. You can count on those people surrounding your project to be opposed, and they’re going to make life miserable for you,” Rodgers said. “The question is, is the project beneficial to the rest of the community and worth the pain it’s gonna cause people. That’s what the elected leaders are paid to decide.”
For more information on Amherst’s master plan for the site, see https://trainingcentermasterplan.com/