Silver lawsuit over easement dismissed

Posted on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm

A lawsuit against two conservation agencies over 300 acres in Caroline County has been dismissed in Caroline Circuit Court.

The plaintiff, Moss Neck Manor Plantation Inc., a division of the Silver Companies, based in Fredericksburg, dismissed the lawsuit on Nov. 29.

Moss Neck had filed the lawsuit against a state agency, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and The Conservation Fund, as it sought to place 300 acres in a conservation easement as a way to keep it from ever being developed.

The property is part of Moss Neck’s 1,209 acre parcel bounded by Fort A.P. Hill and Burma Road in the northernmost part of the county. It is near the historic mansion, Moss Neck Manor, which Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson used as winter headquarters from December 1862 through March 1863. Jackson was visited there at Christmastime by Gens. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stewart.

The Conservation Fund “came to us years ago and asked for an easement and we said fine,” said Jud Honaker, president of commercial development for the Silver Companies. “They did a bait and switch. They talked about one proposal and then switched to another proposal at the last minute.”

Fort A.P. Hill has the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program to prevent land near the perimeters of the base from turning into shopping malls or subdivisions that would be impacted by the military base’s training missions. Fort A.P. Hill buys conservation easements, meaning a land owner gets paid not to develop property.

Moss Neck’s lawsuit claimed that the defendants tried to add more property to the easement and more restrictive conditions in the final stages of the easement procedure. Moss Neck asked for $1.35 million in damages from TCF along with attorney’s fees and unlisted damages from the VOF.

The lawsuit was dismissed due to the VOF’s status as a state agency, which gives it some protection through sovereign immunity. “This was going to be a long, drawn-out case if we had continued,” Honaker said. “The state was claiming sovereign immunity, and we would have to make an argument before a judge, and that can take a long time.”

In a prepared statement, Jason McGarvey, communications and outreach manager for the VOF, said, “The parties mutually agreed that the lawsuit be dismissed, and we think that was the right thing to do.”

“It’s back to square one,” Honaker said. “There is no easement on that property. As it stands now, we can still build houses on that property.”

If the VOF or TCF approaches Moss Neck in the future about an easement, “I’d be reluctant to go back and deal with them,” Honaker said.

The easement would have been a win-win deal for all parties. “Even though we are involved in development, we have been environmentally friendly, and we have set aside areas for non-development along a river where it just wasn’t feasible to develop because of the natural beauty. We’ve set aside 400 acres here and there.”

TCF’s mission is to “forge partnerships to conserve America’s legacy of land and water resources.”

The VOF says it “is Virginia’s leader in land conservation, protecting roughly 650,000 acres in 106 counties and independent cities. In the last decade, VOF has preserved open space in Virginia at a rate of about 5 acres every hour, primarily through the use of open-space conservation easements.” Land conservation preserves “the natural, scenic, historic, scientific, open-space and recreational areas of the Commonwealth.”

Silver Companies’ investments include apartment communities, retail and office buildings, hotels and commercial land in Florida and Fredericksburg, with ties to Central Park and Celebrate Virginia.

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