Natural Bridge sold

Natural Bridge and its surrounding properties have been owned and operated since 1988 by Washington, D.C., real estate developer Angelo Puglisi. The bridge would become a state park eventually under a deal completed today.

The Natural Bridge will become a state park under a deal reached between its former and current owners and several Virginia agencies.

The complicated real estate transaction, recorded Thursday in Rockbridge County, fulfills its longtime owner’s desire to preserve the national treasure once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Angelo Puglisi donated the 215-foot limestone arch, valued at $21 million, to the newly formed Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund and received conservation tax credits estimated to be worth about $7 million along with $8.6 million in cash for the balance of his Natural Bridge holdings that encompass more than 1,500 mostly forested acres.

“It is something that needs to be preserved as Mount Vernon and Monticello,” Puglisi said. “I’m afraid we are losing the history of our country.”

For Puglisi, entrusting the historic structure to the state offers the assurance that many generations yet to come can stand in awe of Jefferson’s bridge on property surveyed by George Washington and hear the story of the nation’s founding.

Last spring Puglisi contracted with Jim Woltz of Roanoke-based Woltz and Associates to auction the property, but told him that he wanted the national historic landmark to become a national or state park.

“He didn’t want it to be a carnival. He didn’t want to see a zip line off the bridge,” Woltz said.

The deal with the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund goes beyond protecting the bridge, Native American village and waterfall — features most visitors have viewed. Eventually, all of the holdings, save for the hotel and cottages, will become part of the state park system.

“This is truly a historic day for a very special place,” said Faye Cooper, executive director of the Valley Conservation Council. “Everyone acknowledges the historic value with Jefferson having owned it. But it has special significance as a rather large property with a great variety of conservation values — scenic, ecological, underlying caverns, rare forest connections — and the geological features are truly extraordinary to tell the history of the region.”

In order to fulfil Puglisi’s desire, Woltz said he “banged on lots of doors. I contacted every conservation fund. I worked with hedge funds and investors. We were working with Tom Clarke on another deal, and I mentioned the Natural Bridge and what we were trying to do. He said, ‘Shoot, we’ll try to make that happen.’ ”

Clarke is the owner of Kissito, a nonprofit Roanoke County-based health care firm. The company works in Africa on nutritional and health efforts. Clarke said one of Kissito’s board members, Cabell Brand, had asked him, “What are you doing for the environment?”

Prompted by Brand’s mentoring on sustainable environments, Clarke began working with Woltz on the Buffalo Creek-Purgatory Mountain special project area in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties.

“Jim said, ‘Boy, have I got a deal for you. I’ve got a bridge you’ve got to see.’ ” Clarke said he and his family are no different than most local residents, having visited the Natural Bridge five or 10 years ago and viewing it as a place to take out-of-town visitors. Once he started learning the history and about the holding’s ecological significance, he, too, wanted it preserved and set up the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund.

Clarke said national conservation agencies were also interested in the property and that he feels very honored that Puglisi selected him.

The transaction is complicated. The holdings had been divided into 35 tracts of land. The 188-acre parcel that includes the bridge is valued at $21 million and was donated to Clarke’s VCLF. The deed was recorded with a conservation easement, which allows Puglisi to exercise a state tax credit. The terms require the bridge to be turned over to the state once VCLF retires the $9.1 million loan used to secure the balance of Puglisi’s Natural Bridge holdings. Clarke is aiming to have the note paid by Dec. 31, 2015, and then deed to the state all of the property with the exception of a few parcels that include the hotel, cottages and caverns.

Those parcels on Thursday were transferred to a newly formed for-profit limited partnership set up through Kissito that will allow Clarke to seek private investors to raise the capital needed to renovate the hotel.

To purchase the holdings, VCLF secured a loan through a state Department of Environmental Quality program set up to protect watersheds. Additionally, another agency, the Virginia Resource Agency, was brought in to oversee the loan.

The complexity of the deal, involving so many state agencies, delayed the closing, which was first scheduled to occur in December. In January, the hotel and attractions were closed pending the change in ownership. On Wednesday afternoon, the attorney general signed off on the deal, allowing the deed to be recorded Thursday morning.

For now, VCLF will operate all of the attractions and use the admission proceeds, estimated to be about $2 million a year, to help pay down the note.

Clarke will continue to own and operate the hotel and cottages. Staged renovations are planned for the hotel, with about $5 million worth of updates expected to occur in the next two years.

Woltz credits Clarke’s tenacity for putting together the complicated transaction and seeing through all the many details a bureaucracy creates. Mostly, though, Woltz lauds Puglisi for wanting to protect the unique limestone arch that Jefferson acquired in 1774 from England’s King George III for 20 shillings.

“I hope the big story is Angelo’s gift of the bridge. It’s a huge $21 million gift,” Woltz said. “Angelo is a wonderful, wonderful, sweet man.”

Clarke called Puglisi a hero and is grateful that he entrusted his company with such a valuable property.

“We really all should be grateful to Angelo Puglisi to his commitment and stewardship of the property and his patience in seeing through this highly complicated deal,” said Cooper, whose agency was also involved in the transaction.

Puglisi sought at the depths of the recession in 2007 to sell Natural Bridge along with all of the Rockbridge County property for $39 million, but the timing was poor.

When he hired Woltz last spring to auction the property, it was also with the instruction that he wanted the bridge conveyed to the public so that it remained accessible and treasured. Though county, state and federal government officials were all interested in ownership, none offered to pay for it.

The National Park Service was studying the feasibility of taking the bridge into its system, but the process was laborious, and there was no assurance that the federal government was in a position to purchase it. The state was interested in the bridge but was clear that it did not have funds to buy it.

Though the property will not officially become a park until the loan is retired, Woltz said the state is already making plans for trails and an amphitheater.

“They have a great vision for hiking and camping,” he said.

Chris Wise, chairman of Friends of the Natural Bridge and a board member for the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, said the transaction is exactly the outcome his groups had hoped for when the property was slated for auction. “Single ownership, with the bridge and undeveloped land going to a park,” he said.

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Contact Luanne Rife at luanne.rife@roanoke.com.

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