A mysterious castle, four eccentric unmarried sisters and a sprawling 400-acre estate. It sounds like the contents of a gothic novel. But it’s actually the scene of a contemporary real estate drama right here in Loudoun—and one that just might have a happy ending.
The Brown sisters lived quietly at their family’s farm near Waterford for four decades. When the last living sister died a decade ago without direct heirs, the property’s future was the subject of more than a little speculation. In recent months, Waterford was buzzing with news that a developer had eyes on the property—one of the biggest available tracts of land in the area—and plans to build more than 80 houses. But last week, local business owner Chuck Kuhn disclosed that he has a contract on the property and plans to put the estate into a conservation easement to prevent future development.
It’s a move that has neighbors collectively holding their breath. Kuhn, who’s made headlines with past conservation purchases near Leesburg and Purcellville, has been quietly buying land in the Waterford and Lovettsville areas in recent months with plans to place everything under easement. And for the real estate agents who brokered the deals, Kuhn’s latest buys are an example to longtime Loudoun landowners that selling for development isn’t the only way to get a return on their investment.
When Bronwen Souders and her husband John moved to Waterford in 1972, their closest neighbors were the mysterious Brown sisters: Mary, Katherine, Hannah and Violet.
Souders remembers walking through the big iron gate at the sisters’ impressive manor house for the first time to bring her new neighbors a loaf of bread, greeted by statues and a three-legged dog.
“They were lovely. They were extremely private,” Souders said. “They loved animals. Any dog or cat they could find, they adopted.”
As a longtime neighbor and historian for the Waterford Foundation, Souders has made a passion project of documenting the sisters’ fascinating family history, which goes back more than 200 years in Waterford. The sisters’ grandmother, Josephine Cassaday Fry Gross, was descended from the Irish immigrant Joseph McGeath, who bought the original 600 acres known as Oakland Farm in 1760. Josephine’s daughter, Lily, married a New Englander named George Brown, and the wealthy couple and their five children divided their time between Philadelphia, extensive family properties in Florida and the family seat in Waterford.
“The house in Waterford was always the constant,” Souders said.
Lily Brown updated her family’s fieldstone farm in the 1890s to keep up with friends’ Gilded Age homes—and the manor known as Browns’ Castle was born. According to Souders, Lily and George’s only son, Charles (known as Tom), had strained relations with his parents and renounced his rights to his mother’s properties in 1923. The Loudoun property went to the sisters—none of whom married, in part because of their mother’s preoccupation with finding wealthy suitors. Souders remembers a conversation with Violet who said, “Mama kept trying to fix us up with rich old men, and we didn’t like them.”
In the early ’70s, the sisters were dividing their time between Philadelphia and Waterford. But by 1976 all four had moved to the farm full-time, and all four lived into their 90s. When Hannah Brown, the last surviving sister, died in 2009, she left the farm to the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Souders said that based on conversations with the sisters, there was an understanding that the property wouldn’t be developed. But when the Diocese put the estate on the market earlier this year, there were rumblings of plans to do just that.
‘A Living Museum’
Chuck Kuhn, the multi-millionaire founder of Sterling-based JK Moving, is known both for lucrative commercial real estate deals in eastern Loudoun and protecting thousands of acres in the rural west. Kuhn and his wife, Stacy, live on a 1,400-acre farm near Purcellville, and the couple made headlines with a huge conservation purchase near Lucketts earlier this year. Lately they’ve turned their focus to Waterford and Lovettsville.
“We had a family goal to put 10,000 acres of western Loudoun land into conservation easement,” Kuhn said. “We’re really just working through that plan and working to accomplish and hopefully exceed that goal.”
Kuhn said he’s had an eye on the Brown Farm for years, but talks with the Diocese made little progress until recently. Kuhn now has the Brown Farm, listed at just over $8 million, under contract in a study period.
“Our goal with that property is to get it into conservation easement and protect the open space. We do have a number of hurdles we need to get through to get that accomplished,” he said. “It’s exciting for us. It’s such a beautiful property.”
Kuhn bought Rogue’s Hollow Farm on Old Waterford Road three years ago and last week placed another 130-acre tract at the intersection of Stumptown and Loyalty Roads outside of Waterford into easement. He recently put a contract on a 50-acre farm on Clover Hill Road just outside of the historic village, a property that had also seen developer interest.
“If you look at the beauty of that farm and how it lies outside of Waterford, in my opinion it would have been a crime to have 17 tract homes built on the property,” Kuhn said. “That was one we thought was important to purchase.”
There are significant federal and state tax benefits to putting properties under conservation easement. But Kuhn said for someone in his position, that’s a perk rather than a driving force.
“It’s a great secondary incentive. …We certainly enjoy the tax benefits. But if it was only about financial gain, we would develop the ground,” Kuhn said. “If you truly are concerned with protecting the open space, which we are, you realize that we’re in a living museum.”
Kuhn has become a hero for some preservationists but acknowledges that one person can’t save rural Loudoun single-handedly.
“There have been a lot of people that have come before me who’ve done some fantastic conservation easement work. … I don’t want to by any means act like I’m the only one doing it or the first one doing it,” Kuhn said. “My family will be able to have a positive effect on some percentage of Fauquier and Loudoun County. We certainly can’t do it all, and there are other people who are continuing to do it, thankfully. The more people that get involved in protecting open space, the better off we’re all going to be.”
And as the county looks at public programs like transfer and purchase of development rights, Kuhn said the local board of supervisors should look out for “unintended consequences on conservation easements.” He’s part of a group easement holders that has volunteered to work with the supervisors to make sure any public plan “truly protects western Loudoun without jeopardizing the conservation easement program that’s in place today.”
Janeen Marconi and Christy Hertel with Hunt Country Sotheby’s International Realty have a reputation for work conservation buyers. And their message to landowners is that selling to developers doesn’t always mean the biggest return on their investment.
“People don’t always understand the nuances of bringing in a conservation buyer,” Hertel said. “For the seller, often it can be very attractive. … Developers aren’t always going to beat a price at the end of the day.”
Marconi has a longstanding business relationship with the Kuhn family and has brokered numerous conservation sales in western Loudoun, including the Brown Farm contract. She says landowners can—and routinely do—get fair market value by selling to easement buyers. And while Kuhn is a big name, there are others doing the same, including some who focus on smaller rural properties, she added. In the case of the Clover Hill farm, owned by beloved Loudoun farmer Sam Hutchison until his death in 2017, Marconi wanted to make sure his sons got a fair price for the farm. In the end, a conservation contract with Kuhn won out.
“They didn’t want to see it developed, but on the other hand, they have a right to maximize their inheritance,” Marconi said. “We had families that looked at it. We had winery folks that looked at it. We had developers and we had other conservation buyers. By putting it out on the market, when they took the offer they took, the family knew that the market spoke as to what the value of the farm was.”
“There’s a misconception that if you hang onto a property for a long time that a developer will pay the highest price. That’s not necessarily the case,” said Colleen McGovern Gustavson, also with Hunt Country.
Gustavson and her partner Eryn Appell recently represented the sellers of Aldon Farm, a 130-acre tract of raw farmland along the Potomac River near Lovettsville, in another easement sale to Kuhn. Gustavson said that after the family’s attempts to sell the property through a commercial real estate firm stalled, she convinced the owners to take another approach and look for an easement buyer. Kuhn closed on that property for $2.16 million last month.
Gustavson, a lifelong Loudouner, said the process of educating landowners about the opportunities in easement sales is key.
“Being a Loudoun native, I want to see as much open space as possible. … I love seeing it put into easement. It’s the most powerful tool,” she said. “It’s a win-win for whoever puts it in the conservation easement.”
‘They Loved Every Inch of That Place’
In Waterford, Souders and her neighbors are crossing their fingers that the Brown Farm sale moves forward as planned.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything better if it goes through,” she said. “Mainly because it’s what the Brown sisters wanted. They would have been horrified at the thought of 84 houses. … They loved every inch of that place.”