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JCC could pay for land move that's been invalidated

Daily Press
April 6, 2007
By Danielle Zielinksi

JAMES CITY -- The county might have to pay back rent on land taken by eminent domain for the new Matoaka Elementary School.

Last week, James City County agreed to dismiss a petition to enforce the land move, essentially conceding that its first condemnation attempt violated state laws. A November court ruling held that the county broke the law by failing to do a proper examination of the land's title and by failing to give the required 90-day notice to other landowners in the site's agricultural and rorestal zoning district.

Construction on Matoaka continues, but the legal mistakes could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school's price tag, which exceeds $22 million.

"The county was illegally on the property from January 9 (2006) until October 20 (2006)," said Henry Howell, the attorney representing the property's owners. "They owe damages, as well as just compensation for time on the property."

Howell said the amount that the county owed would be determined through an appraisal and court trial.

He said the matter was complicated because construction on the school had begun and because the land was part of a working quarry site, with the potential to yield 1 million cubic yards of filler material for construction projects.

"We're in a new area of the law," Howell said. "It's rare that these things are invalidated ... once they're on the land and construction has already started."

County Attorney Leo Rogers is on vacation this week and couldn't be reached for comment.

Other county officials declined comment on the case.

County supervisors voted in December 2005 to condemn the 44 acres for the school, after the landowners refused a $540,000 offer. Howell maintains that a proper offer was never made.

"They never got all the correct owners at the table," he said.

The site - on Brick Bat Road near Greensprings Plantation - is part of land originally owned by Judge Frank Armistead. It's now held in two separate trusts involving five family members.

A Spotsylvania County judge has been hearing the cases, after local judges recused themselves because they know the family.

Supervisors voted to condemn the land a second time in October - reducing the size of the tract to 40 acres and changing the boundaries.

A challenge to the second condemnation is pending, Howell said, on grounds that the county still didn't give proper notice to the zoning district and that it didn't have the authority to do a "quick take" of land. Quick-take power allows an entity to enter condemned property immediately. A judge has been assigned to the case, but no court date has been scheduled.

Howell said there was no question that the county would eventually get the property - the issue was its value. Matoaka Elementary School is scheduled to open in September.