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Sunday, August 3, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Virginia plantation owner angers neighbors

The Washington Post

CHARLES CITY, Va. — On a recent summer day at historic Shirley Plantation on the James River, polo ponies kicked up clods of dirt, politely applauded by the crème de la crème of Richmond society. A breeze gently lifted the branches of a 300-year-old willow oak tree that Robert E. Lee is said to have played under as a boy.

On the sidelines was 6-foot-6 Charles Hill Carter III, 41. With his dirty sneakers and wraparound sunglasses, Carter hardly appears the heir to one of the country's oldest and grandest plantation homes. Like his father, he occasionally has been mistaken for the gardener.

But since he took over running the plantation from his aging parents, Carter has proven a soft-spoken but fierce keeper of the family's legacy: Shirley Plantation, a national historic landmark founded in 1613, stands on a bluff near Richmond. Considered one of the state's finest examples of colonial architecture, the home attracts 50,000 visitors a year.

Spurred by the fear that changing inheritance laws threaten land that has been in his family for more than three centuries, Carter in recent years has launched a number of moneymaking ventures at the 330-acre Shirley Plantation and adjacent 300 acres that have raised the ire of environmentalists, historians and neighbors.

Some critics say that Carter is making a mockery of the storied history he purports to protect, and that if he can't afford to keep the property, he should sell it.

The challenge Carter faces is not unusual among landed gentry in the United States or abroad. Because of the burden of upkeep, steep inheritances taxes and the vagaries of time, few of Virginia's great houses remain with their founding families, said Calder Loth, a historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Carter struck a deal with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project under which he received $1.9 million to take from the Potomac River 382,000 cubic yards of dredged mud that he used to create a soybean field. He economized by using equipment he leased for the mud project to grade a new polo field, which he rents out.

His decision to allow Waste Management to build a garbage port on the property — the firm's only port in the state — spurred a statewide uproar over leaky garbage barges on the James River and a protracted legal battle that was resolved Friday, when a state board imposed new regulations on barging.

That paved the way for Waste Management to resume bringing in millions of tons of out-of-state garbage through the port, less than one-half mile from where tourist buses unload visitors. There is no word as to when the garbage shipments will start again.

"I'm the oldest, and that's my job — to preserve, protect and pass on," Carter said.

But Carter's critics say his single-minded mission to keep Shirley Plantation in the family will have disastrous long-term effects, and predict smelly trash trucks thundering across the property.

"It is perfectly ironic, and tragic, that the people who inherited Shirley Plantation have used the cost of maintaining the property as a pretext for this enterprise that desecrates this majestic stretch of the James River," said Sterling Rives, a lawyer in nearby Hanover County.

"If all of the money paid by tourists and schoolchildren to visit the property is not enough to support them, they really should sell it. This use places a huge stigma on Shirley and the James."

Early colonists from England established the tobacco plantation as early as 1613, and its grand brick Queen Anne-style house was built in 1723 as a wedding gift from the owner to his daughter and son-in-law, John Carter, son of famed Virginia landholder Robert "King" Carter. A noted feature is the three-story walnut staircase that has no visible means of support.

Ann Hill Carter, the mother of Robert E. Lee, was born and reared there, and Lee was schooled in one of its outbuildings.

Shirley Plantation survived fierce fighting during the Civil War and was a field hospital for wounded Union soldiers in 1862. The silver in the dining room survived Union looting because the Carters wrapped it in burlap and hid it in the property's wells.

"Shirley is obviously one of the greatest architectural icons of Virginia," Loth said. "It's a very imposing brick mansion with some of the finest paneling and the most impressive staircase of any house of its period in the country."

Loth said only about four of the state's 30 or so grand homes remain with the original heirs. Shirley Plantation's annual tourism revenue is about $500,000, and its expenses exceed that, Carter said, but he wouldn't specify by how much. Its crops have been losing money.

"It's a daunting task unless you're independently wealthy, and I don't think they have enough to sit back and not do anything," said Don Charles, executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation. "I'm sure they'd love to ride around in their Bentleys and make their field hands mow the grass, but the Carter family is very hands-on."

Carter's parents moved to the mansion's upper two floors in 1952, when they opened the house to tourists, and later reared their family — Charles III and two siblings — there. Carter and his parents still live there.

The plantation has been one of the region's biggest tourist attractions since it opened to the public.

When the legal fracas surrounding the garbage port halted out-of-state trash shipments in 1998, Carter used the dock to import tourists, cattle and 174 shipments of the Potomac River dredge. The mud was dried out, leveled and made into agricultural fields and wetlands. Last year's test corn crop yielded a bountiful 200 bushels to the acre.

Mike Baker, environmental-construction manager for the Wilson Bridge project, said: "I think he's trying to make the land work for them. He's trying to keep the plantation in the family. That's his life's role."

Carter said he constantly is thinking about new ways to use his family's land, such as the polo field, which he dreamed up as a restoration project in keeping with a 1742 plat that showed the area was an enclosed park for carriage horses.

Now that the garbage shipments can resume, sources said he stands to make about 70 cents on every ton of trash barged into the port. State officials estimate that amount could reach about 1 million tons annually, while environmentalists fear it could be three times that amount.

Local environmentalists say that even new regulations requiring the garbage containers to be sealed don't guarantee the river's ecological safety.

Carter insists that the garbage, which will be trucked from the port to a nearby landfill, won't have a negative effect on the historic home.

"My family's been here 3-1/2 centuries," he said. "People must think we're trying to destroy Shirley ... but that's not what we're about. We're trying to protect Shirley. The trash will not affect Shirley whatsoever. Anybody who thinks otherwise is crazy."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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