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Slavery museum land value debated

MORE: National Slavery Museum timeline and archives

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

The city’s attorney in the slavery museum case says a new land appraisal done for the museum shouldn’t have any effect on the museum’s delinquent tax bill or the city’s efforts to auction the land.

But the museum’s attorneys say it makes all the difference, and they argue the city’s tax assessment on the land is over-inflated.

An appraisal of the museum’s 38 acres in Fredericksburg by Richmond firm Independent Appraisers and Consultants LLC has valued the U.S. National Slavery Museum’s 38 acres at $750,000, according to a letter from the company sent to museum founder and former governor Doug Wilder.

That’s much less than the $7.6 million city tax assessment for the property in 2012. It’s also lower than the city’s own appraisal, done in January, of about $1.7 million.

Both the city’s appraised value and the new appraisal by the company hired by the museum reflect a value lowered by restrictions on how the land can be used.

The restrictions, put on the land by the Silver Cos. when they donated it to the museum in 2002, say the land can only be used for an African–American history museum, or other educational or charitable purpose.

The deed restrictions have been a bone of contention between the museum, its architect and Celebrate Virginia.

Pei Partnership Architects, which designed a museum that was never built and is owed more than $5 million by the museum, has tried in court—unsuccessfully so far—to get the restrictions lifted, arguing that they limit the value of the land at sale. If the city successfully auctions the land, Pei and the city—the museums’ two main creditors—would be paid out of the proceeds.

The restrictions mean the $7.6 million tax assessed value is too high, said museum attorney Paul Goldman. He wants the city to justify how it reached that assessment value.

“The law says they’re entitled to the taxes on the fair market value of the property,” Goldman said Friday. “You can’t get $7.6 million for this property. It’s not the fair market value. It’s not even close.”

He said he and partner Joe Morrissey, a state delegate, are petitioning the city’s commissioner of revenue to review the tax assessments for the past three years.

The museum should have done that long ago if it objected to the assessment, said attorney John Rife of Taxing Authority Consulting Services, which is representing the city of Fredericksburg in the museum case.

The museum’s tax debt—now about $313,000—has been accumulating since 2009. The museum filed for bankruptcy in 2011 to stop the city from selling the land for the back taxes. That case was dismissed last August.

“The [taxes] have been building up for years,” Rife said. “The tax is delinquent to 2009. Every year they get an assessment, every year they can challenge it and every year they have failed to do so. They’ve had ample opportunity to have brought up any issue on the assessment of the tax, and they’ve failed to do it. And they come now at a pivotal moment in this case and they now want to make it an issue. And it’s just too late.”

The case will be back in court in Fredericksburg on Monday.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028