LINKS
2018-01-10 / Real Estate

Out of the woods

New book details Brandermill’s unique history
BY SCOTT BASS
EDITOR


Brandermill’s resort-style homes center around Swift Creek Reservoir, which was critical to the development’s marketing success in the late 1970s. The recently published history book “Brandermill: The Natural Place to Be,” below, details the obstacles developers faced in building the region’s first master-planned community. 
PHOTO BY ASH DANIEL Brandermill’s resort-style homes center around Swift Creek Reservoir, which was critical to the development’s marketing success in the late 1970s. The recently published history book “Brandermill: The Natural Place to Be,” below, details the obstacles developers faced in building the region’s first master-planned community. PHOTO BY ASH DANIEL Sixty years ago, long before Chesterfield’s great western sprawl, the county was struggling with rapid growth on the northern fringes bordering Richmond. At the tail end of the post-World War II baby boom, the county was grappling with an annexation threat from Richmond. It also faced another problem that was getting worse – a quickly depleting water supply.

In the early 1960s, two proposals were emerging that would significantly alter the county for decades to come: One was a plan to build a massive reservoir, eliminating the need to buy water from Richmond. The other was a proposal to build the region’s first master-planned community, a monster subdivision with 7,000 homes and 25,000 residents.

Swift Creek Reservoir, totaling 1,700 acres, was built in 1965. The subdivision built around the reservoir, Brandermill, took a little longer and never made it to 7,000 homes – an earlier plan to build high-rises, a small airport and regional shopping mall was also scrapped – but its success in the late 1970s and into the ’80s sparked a western residential boom that permanently altered Chesterfield’s residential landscape.

The reservoir was key. A businessman named Angus Powell cut a deal with the Board of Supervisors: He’d donate the land for the reservoir, located in the western center of the county, in exchange for exclusive rights to the manmade lake. Powell had a vision: He wanted to build a resort community, with waterfront views, in the heart of Chesterfield.

Through fits and starts, Powell eventually found a developer, Sea Pines Co. of Hilton Head, South Carolina, to take on the project. The first home lots were sold in 1974. Designed to meld with the environment, preserving most of the trees and incorporating 15 miles of biking and walking trails around the reservoir, it became the county’s elite destination for a burgeoning new market of homebuyers: baby boomers. Its design won national acclaim. In a new book produced by the Brandermill History Project, a committee of the Brandermill Community Association, and spearheaded by Tom Jacobson, a Brandermill resident who happens to be Chesterfield’s former planning director, “Brandermill: The Natural Place to Be” unpacks the environmentally conscious approach the developers took, and the storms they weathered along the way.

It’s a tightly written history book by Richmond author Mary Miley Theobald, and designed by Carol Roper Hoffler, intended for the coffee table. Theobald deflects credit to Donna Pletcher, the book’s chief researcher, who did much of the heavy lifting.

“While book designer Carol Hoffler and I are happy to accept compliments for the beautiful Brandermill book, it would not have come out as well or at all without Donna Pletcher,” Theobald says via email. “While I spent months working on the text and Carol spent months working on the layout, Donna has spent years, literally, compiling information about the origins and development of the community.”

Indeed, Brandermill changed the county’s development trajectory. A good 15 miles from downtown Richmond, it sparked a massive westward sprawl. Brandermill led to a population surge that leapfrogged from the 1950s-era suburbs in North Chesterfield to what was, in essence, the hinterlands. At the same time, Theobald writes, the reservoir helped Chesterfield establish independence from the city. Amid white flight in the years after desegregation, Richmond had successfully annexed 23 square miles of North Chesterfield in 1970; the reservoir allowed Chesterfield to shed its dependence on Richmond to supply water to a growing population.

Theobald also chronicles the obstacles Brandermill faced. The story focuses on a core group of senior managers who eventually bought out the original owner, Sea Pines, in 1977. At the time, Sea Pines was in financial duress due to a recession that started after the 1973 oil crisis, and the money troubles nearly derailed Brandermill before the first homes were built. Three senior managers for Sea Pines – Harry Frampton, Gary Fenchuk and J. Roy Martin III – pulled together and purchased the Chesterfield development, ultimately selling $500,000 worth of timber north of Genito Road to close the deal.

By the late 1970s, the economy had recovered and Brandermill took off, selling upward of 300 homes a year. But it wasn’t easy. The developers weathered early zoning battles, economic downturns and a public relations nightmare with unstable soil that damaged the foundations of some homes. While Brandermill never realized its full vision – today, there are approximately 4,000 homes and apartments and 13,000 residents – Jacobson says the developers stayed true to their original tenets: to build a dense suburban community that blended into the woodlands and the environment.

“The lesson of Brandermill is that it takes a developer not only with development talent, but also vision,” says Jacobson, who now teaches urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Government can set standards – they always tend to be minimum standards – and can encourage good design. But it honestly takes a developer with commitment to do it.”

It’s a wonder, says Pletcher, that more than 40 years after the first homes were built, the forested nature of Brandermill remains. “If you look at an aerial view of Brandermill in the 1970s, and look at an aerial view now – there’s no difference,” she says. “You cannot drive through and think there are 13,000 people living in Brandermill.”

For Jacobson, the book provides a sense of history that’s often missing in the suburbs.

“What I’ve learned is the older communities who have sustained themselves have a sense of their history, and what’s unique about their history,” Jacobson says. “Part of the key to Brandermill’s long-term success is understanding and celebrating their history, being proud of it.” ¦

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