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Lindley Estes is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Lindley Estes.

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New twist in National Slavery Museum saga

MORE: National Slavery Museum timeline and archives

The National Slavery Museum has hired a well-known Richmond-area attorney and Virginia House of Delegates member less than a week before a Fredericksburg hearing on the fate of the land where the museum was once envisioned.

Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico, filed paperwork in Fredericksburg Circuit Court this week asking a judge to delay by at least 90 days a hearing scheduled for Monday morning so he can get better acquainted with the case.

Morrissey is a former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, who, along with law partner Paul Goldman, have ties to former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who has spearheaded the National Slavery Museum.

Goldman is a Democratic strategist and longtime Wilder adviser, having worked on Wilder’s 1989 gubernatorial run, and served as an adviser during Wilder’s term as Richmond mayor. He and Morrissey formed Morrissey and Goldman LLC last year after the state Supreme Court agreed to reinstate Morrissey’s law license, which had been revoked in 2003 after several disciplinary issues.

Attorneys for the city of Fredericksburg on Monday plan to ask a Circuit judge to appoint them as special commissioners for the sale of 38 acres that was gifted to the National Slavery Museum in 2002 at Celebrate Virginia South. Little activity has occurred on the project over the past several years, other than numerous court hearings and filings.

If the judge grants the motion to appoint the special commissioners, an auction date could be scheduled within a matter of weeks, said John Rife, one of the city’s attorneys.

The National Slavery Museum now owes about $313,000 in delinquent real estate taxes to Fredericksburg that are more than two years overdue. The tax sale would allow the city and potentially other creditors to recoup the money they are owed.

One of those creditors, New York City-based Pei Partnership Architects, which designed the slavery museum and says the museum owes it more than $6 million, is objecting to the city’s request to have a special commissioner appointed for the sale.

Pei has filed a federal lawsuit in Richmond against Celebrate Virginia’s developer challenging the legality of a restriction placed on the 38 acres given to the museum in 2002. The restriction allows the land to be used only for an African-American heritage museum or some other charitable, educational or public purpose. Pei contends the restriction is not legally enforceable and shouldn’t convey with the land should the property be sold.

Pei has said the restriction will likely reduce the amount the land would sell for at auction by millions of dollars, reducing the chances that the firm could recoup money from the sale. Pei argues that Celebrate Virginia’s developer, an entity of the Silver Cos., gave up any right to the land when it donated it to the museum.

That suit has not yet been adjudicated in U.S. District Court in Richmond, and Pei’s attorney has argued it would be improper to move toward an auction before that occurs.

Silver Cos. principal Jud Honaker has said that five different law firms have reviewed the restriction and determined that it is legally enforceable and should convey with the land.

The 38-acre parcel in question is visible from Interstate 95 and is considered prime real estate. The tax-assessed value is about $7.63 million, but a recent appraisal undertaken by the city valued it at $1.72 million due in large part to the restriction.

In his filing this week, Morrissey called the assessed value of the property “grossly inflated” and argued that the overdue tax bill is therefore higher than it should be.

The National Slavery Museum could repay the overdue taxes at any time before the auction and thereby cancel the proceedings.