$24 million: Castle Hill bursts 'bubble' theory

Mark Swartz has had a bad run of luck lately.

Not only does he face up to 30 years in the pokey after being convicted June 16 of swindling millions of dollars from his former employer, Tyco, but last week he was eclipsed as the deepest pocket in Albemarle County real estate circles.

On June 28, John D. Carr and Raymond E. Humiston III officially claimed the record by paying $24 million for Castle Hill, a Revolutionary War-era mansion on over 1,200 acres of rolling Keswick farmland. Swartz set the previous record in 2001 when he paid $17 million for the Enniscorthy mansion on nearly 1,400 acres in Keene.

Lest anyone think the much-ballyhooed "real estate bubble" ended with funny money-funded Enniscorthy (now a seized asset), the buyers of Castle Hill found a bank, BB&T, willing to advance the entire purchase price.

Furthermore, the sellers– Gardner B. and Jane V. Larned of Naples, Florida– inked the sales contract for the full asking price– and retained a right of first refusal, a provision in the deed permitting them to buy the place back if Humiston and Carr decide to sell.

McLean Faulconer realtors listed the property in February 2004, and rumors had been flying that developers were vying for the estate's scenic acres, none of which have Conservation Easement protection, a source of distress for local environmentalists.

"The Piedmont Environmental Council has been concerned about Castle Hill since it came on the market," says the PEC's Rex Linville. "The property is a historic and scenic landmark in the Southwest Mountains Historic District."

Linville points out that among the 90-plus by-right divisions allowed on the 1,203.4 acres are 27 already-platted prime mountaintop lots.

Whether Humiston, who lives at Merifields Farm next door to Castle Hill, intends to develop or preserve the property is unknown. Neither he nor Carr, the other buyer, could be reached by the Hook's press time.

Castle Hill has made news over the years for more than its hefty price tag. Hearts fluttered in some ag circles in 2004 when an Angus cow named Woodhill Evergreen 120 was cloned at the farm. When the property was listed for sale, however, the Angus herd was dispersed, and no cattle are currently in residence, according to realtors.

Long before that, the place gained fame during the American Revolution as the site of a leisurely delaying-tactic breakfast offered to Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, innocent of the fact that Jack Jouett was at that moment high-tailing it to Monticello to urge Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to flee.

Add a wing built by Robert E. Lee's godfather, Landon Rives; a Russian prince who married Rives's daughter, Amilie, in 1896; and Wayne "Danke Shoen" Newton, who offered to buy the place in 1986 but then backed out, and you have quite a zippy history.

Now, $24 million later, environmentalists, developers, and just ordinary real estate-watchers will have to wait to read the next chapter in Castle Hill's story.