The story goes that Martinsburg’s historic Boydville estate and onetime home of Gen. Elisha Boyd was rescued during the Civil War by President Lincoln, who stopped a marauding army of Union soldiers from torching the place.
Nevertheless, the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board last week approved the sale for $500,000 of the property in what can only be called a fire sale, despite its purchase likely coming as a sigh of relief to board members, surely happy to have unloaded the 13-acre albatross it bought in 2005 to thwart a proposal by The Rector Companies, a Manassas-based development firm to build townhouses and turn the 9,000-square foot Georgian manor house into the focal point of a New Urbanist-style village á la Williamsburg, Va. That deal was sealed for $2.5 million, a third of which was paid by the Martinsburg City Council from its mortgage revenue bond fund.
Suckers, you’re thinking, because a lot of money goes up in smoke with this latest transaction, and even before then — at the time of its purchase in 2005, the property had been appraised at $1.2 million.
While the near-miss was lauded by area residents and others who likened the purchase to the intervention by Lincoln, what was then not fully appreciated was that the farmland board’s acquisition did just one thing, that being to keep the site from being developed and to prevent the imminent construction of more than a hundred townhouses and condominiums — it did nothing to preserve the manor house, which has reportedly been suffering the neglect of absentee ownership these last six years and is deep in need of some maintenance and repair. In the wake of the sale, Martinsburg officials rushed to expand the city’s then-24-year-old historic overlay district to keep the property from going all to rot.
The purchase by the farmland board was soon beset by the mother of all kerfluffles, with the Berkeley County Commission venting its displeasure over the matter by threatening to withhold insurance on the property and vowing never again to allow another fee simple purchase by the farmland board, while Eastern Panhandle Republican lawmakers sought to discredit the purchase by embarrassing its chief architect, Sen. John Unger, and soon got busy unspooling the intent of the state’s then-six-year-old and well-liked farmland protection law.
But what lawmakers didn’t do, the housing downturn of 2008 has. Farmland protection programs continue to sputter along — they’re funded largely by tax revenue from real estate transfers — making now a good a time as any to ask the questions that lawmakers opposed to the Boydville deal were asking then, among them being whether money actively spent for farmland protection should be spent to protect farms that are no longer active farms.