Cathy Dyson writes about King George County.
First court hearing in Project FAITH case is in county’s favor
In the first hearing of what may become a long legal process, a judge ruled in favor of King George County in its attempt to get back the land it gave a nonprofit developer.
The procedural hearing was held Wednesday in King George Circuit Court. Judge Joseph Ellis ruled that Project FAITH, the nonprofit that wants to build the HELP Center, was not entitled to a hearing before the Board of Supervisors.
The agency wanted to explain to board members why it hadn’t started construction by Aug. 1, as specified in the contract, said Clark Leming, the lawyer for Project FAITH.
But the judge ruled there was nothing in the contract that suggested the agency was entitled to such a session.
“Thus, the county prevailed,” said County Attorney Eric Gregory.
Project FAITH wants to build an $8 million center with offices for health and social services, a free clinic, community college classes and a commercial kitchen serving free meals, all under one roof.
In May 2012, county supervisors voted 3–2 to give the agency 5.5 acres of land in the Government Complex, off State Route 3.
The issue has become contentious. Some residents say King George shouldn’t be giving away prime real estate and that the complex should be built by the county, not a private developer.
Others say they fear such a building will lure more needy people to the area, and some contend the opposition is racially motivated.
Supervisor Cedell Brooks, who is African–American, said nobody said a word when the county gave 20 acres and $4 million to the YMCA, which opened five years ago.
But it was a different matter when the county gave land to “this woman, this African–American woman,” Froncé Wardlaw, who directs Project FAITH.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, Ellis pointed out the unusual dynamics of the case.
The county is the party claming that Project FAITH defaulted on its contract, the judge said, but it’s also the party that oversees the permitting process.
Leming contends the agency couldn’t start construction on time because it was delayed by county officials in getting the necessary site plan approval and building permits.
“They’re the ones that held us up,” Leming said.
Gregory would not comment on the judge’s remarks about the county’s dual roles.
No doubt, those issues will be explored in detail if the case goes to trial.
At this point, both sides will enter the discovery stage, when they gather information for the case.
If there’s a trial, Leming said, it probably will be scheduled in the fall.
“The county is evaluating the matter to determine more specific next steps,” Gregory said.
Leming said King George will have “a significant burden of proof” in demonstrating why the land should revert back to the county. He said the law “strongly disfavors reversion.”
Mark Flynn, general counsel for the Virginia Municipal League in Richmond, said he doesn’t agree with that assessment.
He said localities usually “spell out pretty clearly” in the contract what can and cannot take place on land given to another party and what will happen if conditions aren’t met.