An enduring history: Colonial Williamsburg’s land deals and the forging of a region

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500 Packets Court is one of the many properties Colonial Williamsburg owns outside the Historic Area. (Steve Roberts Jr./WYDaily)
500 Packets Court in James City County is one of the many properties Colonial Williamsburg owns outside the Historic Area. (Steve Roberts Jr./WYDaily)

Just outside Kingsmill in James City County is a stout concrete office building. Through its darkened windows clear plastic totes with white lids are visible, but its parking lot is empty and no employees in sight. The Colonial Williamsburg-owned building is miles away from its owner’s core land in the heart of Williamsburg, but few know of the foundation’s properties outside of the Historic Area.

This seemingly empty office is not an anomaly in the Historic Triangle, but is the norm for a private nonprofit foundation with sprawling land interests throughout the area.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation owns more than four times as much land in Williamsburg than the City of Williamsburg does. In terms of acreage, the foundation owns more land in the Historic Triangle than the areas of Central Park in New York City, Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. and Busch Gardens Williamsburg combined.

In Williamsburg, the nonprofit owns about 24 percent of all land within city limits, according to U.S. Census and property information data.

There’s no such thing as a backroom deal for a private corporation — including a nonprofit. Public entities such as city and county governments have elected officials that can be held accountable at the ballot box. Government is required to be transparent under state and federal law, while private nonprofits only need to publicize their annual Internal Revenue Service tax forms.

They aren’t required to have public meetings or open comment periods. Private nonprofit entities such as Colonial Williamsburg are only accountable to their board of trustees, their donors and the state Attorney General, according to professor Herrington Bryce, Life of Virginia Professor of Business and Affiliate of Thomas Jefferson Public Policy Program at the College of William and Mary.

Transparency in nonprofits can be difficult, especially if the organization has for-profit subsidiaries such as Colonial Williamsburg, according to Bryce. A nonprofit’s fear of losing their tax exempt status can muddy the waters around their land deals.

Colonial Williamsburg has left an indelible mark on the Historic Triangle through its land deals, but it is not a public entity. One of the foundation’s principle limits is money. Under the leadership of foundation president Mitchell Reiss, the property policy of the nonprofit has changed from buying up land and selling it, to just selling it, according to online property databases for James City and York County and the City of Williamsburg.

Maintaining an unobstructed view

The Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

The foundation has made hundreds of land deals in Williamsburg and James City County over the last 90 years, according to property records and foundation spokesman Joseph Straw.

In fact, for nearly 90 years, the private foundation has been making land deals of higher magnitude than nearly any other business entity in the Historic Triangle — Colonial Williamsburg’s property currently has an assessed value of $372,184,900, according to property information data.

“Most of these purchases were made decades ago and include land parcels that surround the Historic Area,” Straw said in a statement. “These parcels were purchased primarily to maintain an unobstructed view from Duke of Gloucester Street.”

Colonial Williamsburg’s land is divided up between the Historic Area, nearby service and educational facilities, land for development and selling, and forested land to be held in perpetuity.

Starting in the 1970s, the foundation began purchasing land near Capitol Landing Road and Bypass Road to shroud the Historic Area from motorists. The woody lots prevent visitors inside of the Historic Area from seeing the gas stations, hotels, or any other trace of industry outside the district.

“The land surrounding the Historic Area helps maintain its character,” Straw said. “That is an important element in the Foundation’s core educational mission.”

The foundation states its mission is “To feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” 

According to Bryce, Colonial Williamsburg is only constrained by its mission. “501 C(3)’s can do almost anything so long as it’s within the mission,” he said.

In effect, Colonial Williamsburg wants its visitors to feel transported to colonial times. To help do so, it bought land to isolate the Historic Area from the outside world.

Still, the foundation owns more than historic lots on Duke of Gloucester Street in its 301-acre Historic Area. One of the foundation’s first developments was a shopping plaza in midtown Williamsburg back in the 1950s. The shopping center still stands to this day.

The Williamsburg Shopping Center was built in 1959 by Williamsburg Restorations, Inc — a subsidiary of Colonial Williamsburg — according to city spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann.

Development of the open-air shopping mall began in 1955 to “alleviate business-driven vehicle and pedestrian traffic” in what would become Merchants Square.

The city does not have any of the site plans for the projects, Hartmann said. The city’s record keeping for development goes back to the 1970s. One of the few remnants of the Williamsburg Shopping Center project is a building permit from 1961 for a bowling alley where Ace Hardware stands today, according to Hartmann.

Land development by the foundation continued in the 1960s, when it purchased more than a dozen properties outside its core area in the Historic Area, according to property information data.

On March 3, 1969, the foundation purchased most of the land at the intersection of Richmond and Jamestown Road with Duke of Gloucester Street: Merchants Square.

Merchants Square, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club, the Williamsburg Lodge, and the land the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Bruton Heights Education Center would be built on were purchased in an eight-year period, according to property information data.

More than Williamsburg

Waller Mill Elementary, Wyndham Gates Resorts, and the Historic Triangle Community Building are the three busiest places on Waller Mill Road. The extra-wide two lane road winds along from Bypass Road until it ends at an access road for the Waller Mill Reservoir. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Waller Mill Elementary, Wyndham Gates Resorts, and the Historic Triangle Community Building are the three busiest places on Waller Mill Road. The extra-wide two-lane road winds along from Bypass Road until it ends at an access road for the Waller Mill Reservoir. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Colonial Williamsburg’s land deals, property, and developments stretch from the forested streets of Waller Mill Road in York County to industrial parks in James City County near the border of Newport News.

The foundation owns 2413.72 acres of land — 3.77 square miles — in the Historic Triangle, according to property information data. About 44 percent of the organization’s land is in James City or York counties.

The largest parcels of land are unseen by the public despite their close proximity to the Historic Area and Williamsburg. To understand the breadth of the foundation’s holding, take for instance an expanse of densely wooded land in York County. It may be beautiful, but it’s also been a moneymaker for the foundation.

Waller Mill Road and Carr’s Hill Road in York County are home to 429 undeveloped acres of the foundation’s land.

The properties in the 400 block of Waller Mill Road total to nearly 429 acres. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The properties in the 400 block of Waller Mill Road total to nearly 429 acres. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

In 1983, the foundation purchased nearly all of its property on Waller Mill Road for $3.1 million. The value of the property is now assessed at $8.6 million.

Waller Mill Elementary, Wyndham Gates Resorts, and the Historic Triangle Community Building are the three busiest places on Waller Mill Road. The extra-wide two-lane road winds along from Bypass Road until it ends at an access road for the Waller Mill Reservoir. 

In 2007, the foundation proposed developing 65 acres of the “Carr’s Hill Tract” with 313 residential homes to York County, according to York County’s chief of development services Susan Kassel.

The plan was scrapped after the Great Recession took its toll on Greater Williamsburg’s economy, Kassel said.

In May 2016, the foundation reached out to York County to see if its preliminary approval for the development was still effective, according to Kassel. The development’s preliminary approval expired, Kassel said. The foundation hasn’t made any action yet on the property since.

Ten road-miles down the Peninsula in James City County, two industrial properties have sat waiting for development. The properties in the James River Commerce Center in Grove have a combined assessed value of $600,000.

Colonial Williamsburg owns two properties in the James River Commerce Center. The Columbia Drive and Endeavor Drive properties have an assessed value of about $600,000 (Columbia Drive pictured). (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Colonial Williamsburg owns two properties in the James River Commerce Center. The Columbia Drive and Endeavor Drive properties have an assessed value of about $600,000 (Columbia Drive pictured). (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

James City County Administrator Bryan Hill said the county wanted to see more industry move into the James River Commerce Center. He said the county wanted to facilitate development by purchasing two parcels of property from the foundation for development.

Foundation spokesman Straw said the nonprofit doesn’t comment on pending land deals.

“Colonial Williamsburg occasionally entertains bids for the sale of certain property holdings,” Straw said in a statement. “The Foundation is currently negotiating with two separate entities on the sale of four land parcels. Because we are in the negotiation phase we are unable to provide additional details.”

An enduring story

The foundation is chalking up the change in leadership for the change in practice: from buying and selling land to only selling.

In the last three years, the nonprofit has stopped purchasing land.

Williamsburg’s property data indicates the last purchase made by the foundation was in October 2013 when it bought a parking lot on Franklin Street in the city.

The Foundation has not purchased any land since Mitchell Reiss has served as President and CEO of the Foundation, and has no present plans to do so,” Straw said in a statement.

When Reiss came on to lead the foundation, the organization did a “comprehensive review” of all its property “to ensure that it manages these properties to the highest and best use for the foundation,” Straw said in a statement.

To be sure, nonprofits are by-design intended to fulfill their mission, according to James Breece, professor of economics at the University of Maine.

In general, they’re an enrichment to society through their missions,” Breece said.

For Colonial Williamsburg that means feeding the “human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” Private nonprofits are not legally required to act in the best interest of their city, nor are they required to be transparent.

Nonprofits, in general, are intended to stand for more than just money, William and Mary professor Bryce said. In Williamsburg, that means the foundation wants to educate and fulfill its mission of sharing America’s story.

For Colonial Williamsburg, the land surrounding it is central to its core mission. Buying and selling land in the Historic Triangle is a means to fund its educational goal.

“We have no plans at this time to sell off land adjacent to the Historic Area,” Straw said in a statement.

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