Hoping to find a new home in Albemarle County, Living Earth School is eyeing a location near Batesville.
The nature-based educational organization had been hosting camps at the Girl Scouts’ Camp Sugar Hollow, but that property is no longer available for use. Camps and programming that previously occurred in Sugar Hollow have operated in Goochland County and Staunton during the last year.
“We’re just kind of bouncing around from site to site, and I mean, it works, but it’s exhausting too,” Adam “Hub” Knott, co-founder and co-director of Living Earth School, said in an interview.
Knott has applied for a special-use permit to hold nature education programs — including summer camps, mentoring, weekend and homeschool support programs — at Israel Mountain Farm, south of the Miller School of Albemarle along Pounding Creek Road.
The property totals about 415 acres, and the organization would use about 140 acres for camps and programming.
The proposal includes building a camp hall, staff cabins, platform tents, a pavilion/nature library and bathrooms/showers. The organization said it also would have dark sky-friendly lighting, a permeable driveway and environmentally friendly landscaping.
Living Earth School is seeking permission to hold a maximum of 200 participants per day and fundraising events twice a year that would have around 400 participants. For the fundraising events, they proposed using bus shuttle transportation services from Crozet and Charlottesville.
Knott said he didn’t see the organization getting to 200 participants in the near future, as finding staff with appropriate training for programs such as earth and survival skills has been a limiting factor in what it can offer.
“We also didn’t know if we could grow without compromising quality, because we are a small nature camp where we do get to know every kid really well,” he said. “It’s really important to us and important to our model of impact, so I don’t foresee going to the 200 number.”
At a recent community meeting, some neighbors of the Batesville-area site expressed concerns about traffic.
Sara Brumfield said she lives in the area and rides her bicycle down Pounding Creek, and questioned how the traffic flow would work, as people can access the road from both Dick Woods Road and Miller School Road.
“The cars won’t be able to pass each other — the gravel road itself is poorly maintained, often floods out and is dangerous down the sides,” she said. “When you get a situation where you have 30 cars a day, that’s 60 trips going in and out. Those are people passing each other alongside bicyclists and things like that, and it makes that entire situation really dangerous.”
Sally Tucker said she also lives nearby and was walking down the road when the organization was doing a test run.
“I had at least six, eight cars pass me, and that’s worse than rush hour on a normal day, and I just can’t imagine when you’re going to have 100, possibly 200 people camping there,” she said. “That road is not going to handle that kind of traffic.”
Scott Clark, a county senior planner reviewing the project, said the Virginia Department of Transportation is part of the review process.
Cunningham said a VDOT representative came to the site to look at the entrance, and the camp was told it would need a commercial entrance.
“And we would definitely entertain looking and hearing more [from] VDOT and what to do with the road to make it more safe,” he said.
In a first-round review from county staff, Clark said the county does not have major concerns about the appropriateness of this use, as it is “relatively low impact” and could revert to forestry or agriculture uses in the future, but there are concerns about traffic generation and road conditions.
“We strongly recommend that you consider revising your application to commit to use of bus shuttles from elsewhere in the area, so that individual vehicles do not need to use Pounding Branch Road for camper drop-off and pickup,” the comments said.
Another person at the community meeting questioned the diversity of the campers and staff seen in photos of the organization.
“Why is that, and is there some plan to address that?” questioned Steven Rosenfield. “Or are there scholarship plans in the offering? … How can you explain why there’s so much whiteness, and what are your plans?”
Cunningham said Living Earth School is working to become a nonprofit, which they hope will allow them to reach more people.
“We want to be able to create partnerships with many other nonprofits that need to grow the reach of nature to those that don’t normally get into nature,” he said. “It is an issue, and we’re aware of it and it goes beyond color, it goes to LGBTQ, it goes to just anybody. We want to get people out, whether it’s young or old, et cetera, so we really feel that that’ll help.”
“I appreciate your sincerity. But we’ll be watching and seeing what these hopes and dreams of yours amount to,” Rosenfield said.
Knott said they want to be able to get grants and funding to be able to pay staff a living wage and to be able to run programs with people who may not be able to afford to come now, and offered to meet with Rosenfield to get more feedback.
Knott said in an interview that Living Earth School obtained nonprofit status in the spring, and is planning to officially switch over at the end of the year. The project will cost about $1.5 million and Living Earth School already has had individuals offer money toward the effort, he said.
“We’ve already had lots of people’s support, and we haven’t even made it public yet,” Knott said. “We’re about 30% of our way there … so I’m hoping — hopefully, not naively — that we can raise it all, and get there and build this place so we can have a good home to go into the future, having security that we can do what we need to do to serve the kids.”
Sharifa Oppenheimer said at the community meeting that she lives in Batesville and had a small home outdoor program for young children where many of her students then went on to the Living Earth School.
“I would be thrilled for the Living Earth School to be so close, to be just a short hop, skip and a jump away in Batesville, and I just really want to focus again on the children,” she said. “… we need to look out for the traffic and the internet, and so forth — but we really have to have our eye on the future. The Living Earth School is educating the future … and I’m excited about the possibility.”
Public hearings before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are not yet scheduled.