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

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Slavery Museum attorney: Project still active

MORE: National Slavery Museum timeline and archives

An attorney for the National Slavery Museum on Monday said the organization still wants to move forward on the long-delayed project in Fredericksburg.

Richmond-area attorney and Virginia House of Delegates member Joe Morrissey made the comments Monday morning following a short hearing in Fredericksburg Circuit Court.

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who has spearheaded the National Slavery Museum project, was in attendance Monday but referred reporters to Morrissey for questions.

Morrissey said Wilder “has taken the high road” amid criticism over the project’s many delays and unpaid taxes and said he won’t be “kicked around” anymore.

Monday’s hearing was originally scheduled for Circuit Judge Gordon Willis to consider a motion by attorneys for the city of Fredericksburg asking the 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.

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.

Willis never had an opportunity Monday to consider whether to appoint the city’s attorneys as special commissioners. Morrissey, who was just recently hired by the National Slavery Museum, asked for a continuance so he and law partner Paul Goldman could get up to speed on the case.

Willis granted the request, setting the new hearing date for 9 a.m. May 28 in Fredericksburg Circuit Court. Attorneys are talking behind the scenes in an effort to resolve the matter before then, Morrissey said.

Morrissey said the city’s attempts to sell the land are “unconscionable” considering what he has called the “grossly inflated” assessed value of the land. The 38 acres are assessed at $7.63 million, but a recent appraisal undertaken by the city valued it at $1.72 million due in large part to a restriction that allows the land to be used only for an African-American heritage museum or some other charitable, educational or public purpose.

Morrissey and Goldman have asked the city’s Commissioner of the Revenue office to review the assessment. They pointed out that the slavery museum’s overdue tax bill would be significantly lower, as much as 65 percent, if the assessed value matched the recent appraisal.

Jeff Scharf, an attorney for the city, said in an email that the museum is entitled to challenge the assessment, but he called it “another delaying tactic.”

In a separate case that is pending in Richmond federal court, New York City-based Pei Partnership Architects is challenging the legality of the restriction on the land, which was part of the gift transfer agreement in 2002.

Pei, which designed the slavery museum, says the museum owes it more than $6 million and has objected to the city’s request to have a special commissioner appointed for the sale. Pei argues that the restriction would significantly lessen the ultimate sales price of the land, leaving less money for the architecture firm.

The Silver Cos., which is developing Celebrate Virginia, has said that five different law firms have reviewed the restriction and determined that it is legally enforceable and should convey with the land.

A court hearing is scheduled on Pei’s lawsuit regarding the restriction Friday morning in Richmond federal court.

Pei attorney Paul Prados said there have been discussions that could resolve the entire matter. He said one scenario has involved the possibility of the 38 acres being sold for a multi-purpose stadium that could be used for minor league baseball if the city can attract a team. The proceeds from the sale would go to the city and Pei to resolve the two liens against the land. It’s unclear how advanced those discussions have gotten.