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Design academy will leave Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania County’s rocky relationship with the National Academy of Environmental Design has quietly come to an end.

“We’ve moved on,” academy Executive Director Linda Sorrento said in a recent interview, adding that she hadn’t yet notified the county in writing.

But the Board of Supervisors may make some noise over the $200,000 it gave the nonprofit in 2012 to set up shop in Spotsylvania.

“I will inquire with our county attorney to see if we can get some of that money back, if not all of it,” Supervisor David Ross said.

Meanwhile, Sorrento says the academy has met its contractual obligations for the money in question. Much of that funding went toward her salary.

The conflict arose after the Board of Supervisors last year declined to provide the academy with an additional $300,000, for a total of $500,000 in taxpayer dollars. A contract between the parties did not guarantee that money but said the county expected to allocate it pending a satisfactory review of the academy’s performance.

The supervisors balked for a variety of reasons, with some saying the academy hadn’t lived up to expectations. Supervisor Gary Skinner, who supported the additional funding, noted that it takes time for organizations to grow.

The only physical presence of the National Academy of Environmental Design, or NAED, was a small office that opened in June 2013 at the future site of Ni Village off U.S. 1 near Massaponax High School. Sorrento said she had been collaborating with the University of Mary Washington, Spotsylvania schools, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and others.

“It’s disappointing,” Supervisor Paul Trampe said of the NAED’s departure. “I think both sides are disappointed in each other, but I didn’t feel they lived up to what they said they were going to be.”

Founded in 2009, the nonprofit describes itself as a coalition of academics and industry leaders reaching more than 500,000 people in environmental design fields. A 2012 press release about the academy’s impending move to Spotsylvania highlighted praise from then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and others.

The organization was expected to benefit Richmond-based Luck Development Partners by being a catalyst for the developer’s Center for Sustainability and Green Technology at Ni Village. In fact, Luck could be liable for a repayment to Spotsylvania if it is found that the academy didn’t fulfill its contractional obligations.

But Eileen Dahlstedt, general manager of Luck Development Partners, said the academy has lived up to its end of the deal.

The agreement, she said, required the Economic Development Authority to notify Luck Development of a breach of contract within 30 days. Luck never received such a notification, Dahlstedt said.

To the contrary, the EDA voted in May to recommend additional funding for the academy, she noted.

Still, the NAED did miss at least one condition of the initial funding—that it hire a second staff member by April 2013. Sorrento said last year that she didn’t want to hire that employee without knowing he or she had job security.

It’s unclear if the majority of the Board of Supervisors will want to seek a refund of its initial investment in the academy.

Trampe said he won’t lead the charge because Luck “is somewhat caught in the middle.”

“But if other supervisors or the EDA want to push the clawback provision I’ll consider it,” he said in an email.

That provision could be applied if the academy did not demonstrate “self-sustainability,” according to a county staff report. Some supervisors said they were concerned about a lack of donors to the NAED.

The organization’s revenue in 2013 included $75,000 in membership dues and a $100,000 contribution from the president of Luck Cos., which includes Luck Development Partners.

In an interview last week, Sorrento told The Free Lance–Star that she had been working “diligently” to remain in Spotsylvania.

She had said last September, after supervisors declined to provide the additional funding for the second time that year, that the academy would explore other options.

“We were trying various options to continue to have our office in Spotsylvania County, and it just didn’t play out,” Sorrento said. “And that’s all very recent.”

She said she is looking at other potential locations in Northern Virginia.

Ross said he approved the initial funding for the academy after being told about all of the professional jobs it would attract to the county. But he said he never saw any progress.

“It is a vote I regret,” he said. “It is the only one that I feel was not a good vote by me.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402