The window coverings are tattered, mouse droppings speckle every corner and there’s a dead bird sprawled in an upstairs bathroom.
Outside, the eaves are rotting. Gutters are filled with greenery. Plywood covers the front door. Except for a recent bush-hogging to make the driveway passable, this open house has not been, as a real estate agent might say, "staged."
In fact there is no agent. Located between Free Union and Earlysville, in one of the more scenic parts of Albemarle County, this handyman-special, rustic, fixer-upper is offered for sale on two acres by the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.
"Rivanna is not in the business of leasing and managing property," explained Rivanna’s water resources manager, Andrea Bowles at Monday’s open house. "And the decision was made to sell it."
Indeed, a 2020 master plan for the 1,314-acre tract known as the "Buck Mountain Property" recommends making better use of this land. It was acquired for a stopped-in-its-tracks reservoir. While the house is the first property to be offered for sale, it could also be the last, since the master plan also suggests holding the expansive tract in case a new reservoir is ever needed and permitted.
The Rivanna authority calls this late 19th century structure the "Elliot House." It has three fireplaces, about 2,000 square feet of space. It’s covered in stucco, grime, algae, and several strands of that crawling vine known as Virginia creeper.
A dying Linden guards a corner of the front porch along with a boxwood which has grown to the roofline. Overhead, a more recent bit of botany, an ailanthus, springs from the main chimney along with a 1970s-era television antenna.
Rivanna acquired this house on nine acres for $150,500 from Michael and Kathleen Kovac in 1983. While efforts to reach that couple were unsuccessful, another couple considering making a bid took advantage of the open house to bring in their contractor to see if the house is salvageable.
"I think it is," said the contractor, Rob Robertson of Robertson Renovations. "I mean it’s gonna take some work."
Upstairs, Robertson opens a window and taps on the plaster walls. Downstairs, the distinctive sound of cracking wood erupts as footfalls land on a weak spot hidden under the vinyl floor in the kitchen.
"There’s a soft spot near the dishwasher," says Rivanna’s Bowles. "Did I forget to tell you?"
Back in the 1980s, the Rivanna authority bought this land likely unaware that Buck Mountain Creek played habitat to the James River spinymussel, a little mollusk whose presence as a species on earth might be compromised by building another reservoir.
The rejection of the Buck Mountain property as a reservoir came not with a bang but with a whimper. Local officials were told by state officials at various times that they could not win approval for a dam due to the presence of that spinymussel, which is listed as "critically endangered," one step above "extinct in the wild," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
At some point, the Elliot House became a rental property. That ended in 2012, according to the master plan, when the Rivanna authority decided to board it up rather than make the extensive repairs that it allegedly needed.
Upstairs, the couple and their contractor get abundant indicators of the toll taken by a decade without human habitation as they tiptoe around dead flies and heavy accumulations of dust. Although nature has been reclaiming the property, the contractor declares it salvageable.
"I do not think this is a teardown," says Robertson.
If he’s right, that means his clients can bid as low as $250,000. According to the rules of this bidding process, anyone who plans to demolish the house must bid at least $300,000.
In earlier times, the Rivanna authority endured repeated requests from former Buck Mountain property owners trying to buy back their properties, two of which were acquired via the adversarial process of eminent domain, according to a neighbor.
The outrage stemmed from Rivanna buying this land, about a fifth of the size of the city of Charlottesville, for one reservoir and then developing a reservoir elsewhere.
"This thing has been a contentious issue," says water system watchdog Dede Smith, "but it was a long time ago."
Neighbor Matthew Lucas said he lauds Rivanna’s move to get a homeowner into that house because that will place more eyes and ears on the reservoir tract that has been plagued, he says, by illegal hunting and drug manufacture.
"That’s a very smart decision," says Lucas.
On the other hand, Lucas takes a dimmer view of some proposals contemplated in Rivanna’s master plan, such as building solar farms and windmills. He thinks Rivanna will just hold the land for a future reservoir.
"I don’t think they’ll ever develop it," says Lucas. "You don’t know what the water needs will be 50 years down the road."
Another neighbor, Hamp Hall, related how his concerned friends sometimes ask how he will possibly cope if Rivanna eventually builds a reservoir near his backyard.
"It’ll be great," says Hall. "I’ll go fishing."
Sealed bids on the property are due at 2 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 14. Details are at rivanna.org.