When he’s not helping others buy and sell land, Bill Barnett is often out there enjoying his own.
The senior vice president and partner at Commonwealth Commercial spends much of his free time on the 175 or so acres he owns along the Chickahominy River in Charles City County.
That’s when he’s not at his primary home in Mathews County, where he can be found fishing in the East River and Chesapeake Bay.
An avid fisherman and hunter, the 76-year-old said his personal love of land and of experiencing nature has carried over into his profession brokering real estate deals. Now in his 50th year in the business, representing buyers and sellers of typically rural acreage, Barnett said the blending of business and pleasure gives him a sort of cred with his clients.
“I have a passion for the outdoors where I can walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and help people who enjoy that kind of property,” he said. “Whether it’s for development, or somebody who wants a place to just have a personal retreat or a family retreat, if you have experienced that, you have a lot more empathy with what their goal is.”
A Charles City native, Barnett bought his land there about 25 years ago, though it was only three years ago that he built a cabin on it, bringing his dwelling count to three. He and wife Cindy, an agent with residential brokerage Long & Foster Real Estate, also have a home in town near the University of Richmond.
“We’re over-housed,” Barnett said with a laugh. “It’s not financially the most prudent plan.”
His Charles City purchase continues a family tradition that goes back centuries. Barnett said a search of county deed books revealed that his ancestors owned land in Charles City as far back as the 18th century.
“The earliest Barnetts that I could find, they bought land in the 1770s and paid for it in shillings. It was still a colony of England.”
Barnett said the cabin allows him and his two daughters more time to enjoy what he proudly describes as primarily swampland.
“I bought it because it was swamp, because it’s bald cypress trees. A friend of mine, when I took him hunting, he turned to me and said, ‘Where are the dinosaurs?’ It looks like a primeval place,” he said. “But to me, it’s fascinating, because of the animals we see.
“I grew up hunting and fishing in places that a lot of people wouldn’t want to go. But it’s teeming with wildlife, so it’s just fun to watch otters and minks and coyotes and bobcats and eagles, as well as ducks and geese, deer and turkey,” he said.
While his affinity for wildlife may seem to some to contradict his hunting hobby, Barnett said they actually go hand in hand.
“These animals – any site has a carrying capacity. Only so many deer can live here before it becomes overpopulated and they become sick or starved,” he said. “To harvest a reasonable amount of game is just part of the life cycle, otherwise it’s going to be eaten alive or die from disease.”
Barnett’s hunting and fishing have taken him to locales across the country, as well as to countries in Latin and South America. While sometimes exotic, he said such travels also increase his appreciation for what his home state has to offer.
“If you travel – somebody said this, I didn’t come up with it – the biggest single benefit is greater appreciation of where you are, your home,” he said. “For me, I bought a center-console boat, 20-foot low-rise, to explore the Chesapeake Bay. I said I want to learn more about what’s right here, not just Argentina or Nicaragua or Louisiana.
“I’ve been up and down virtually every mile of tidal rivers on the western shore” of Virginia, he said. “The Eastern Shore is a bit different. Virginia’s blessed with a resource; you just have to look at a map to go experience it.”
Barnett, who joined Commonwealth Commercial in 2001, said he got his start in real estate by accident, following his dad into the business.
“My father was a residential real estate broker. I didn’t have any interest in selling homes. I wanted the outdoors,” he said.
He went to work for Crawley Joyner, whose Joyner & Co. is now Joyner Fine Properties. Describing his as a mentor, Barnett worked for Joyner for 27 years until the business was sold and he switched to Commonwealth Commercial, then a 5-year-old firm.
“I was the only person that came in 2001 that had a dedicated career to land brokerage,” he said. “Now we’ve got probably 10 brokers there that specialize in land: recreational, timber, farms. Some of it is going to be developed or has been developed. I got to work with some wonderful projects, whether it was Innsbrook or Deep Run Business Center or some industrial properties in Chesterfield.”
Among his biggest and most notable deals was the 2014 sale of Brandon Plantation, a 4,600-acre property with a 12,000-square-foot mansion along the James River in Charles City County. Barnett said the sale, in which he represented the buyer, was only the third time the 18th-century property had changed hands.
Barnett also represented, with Joe Buhrman, Henrico County’s Scott family in their sale a year later of Scott Farm, a roughly 100-acre tract now owned by Bill Goodwin’s Riverstone Properties and positioned for development as part of the massive arena-anchored GreenCity project.
Other notable recent deals include 220 acres in Hanover County, where grocery chain Wegmans is planning a distribution facility and regional headquarters. Barnett represented the seller in that deal, along with Buhrman and Chris Jenkins. He also marketed, with Ryan Fanelli, the 900-acre Malvern Hill Farm that in 2018 was bought by the Capital Region Land Conservancy.
Barnett attributes such deals to the relationships he’s built with fellow landowners over the years.
“I’m blessed with the people that I know. I don’t want that to come across as journey-proud or beating my chest with my fist,” he said. “But you spend a lifetime trying to do the right thing, and if that happens, sometimes you earn the trust of people to handle their business for them.”
While he has now worked half of century in real estate, Barnett said retirement remains beyond his view.
“I don’t work the same kind of hours I used to, but I am still full-time in the business because I wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ And I go, ‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s go find out.’ I don’t need an alarm clock, but I wake up between 5 and 5:30 every day and I’m excited.”
Laughing, he added, “My goal in life would be to meet every farmer in Virginia before I die. That won’t happen, but that’s my goal.”
This is the latest installment in our Downtime series, which focuses on businesspeople’s pursuits outside the office. If you, a co-worker or someone you know around town has a unique way of passing time off the clock, submit suggestions to [email protected] For previous installments of Downtime, click here.