Braverman, center, chats amiably afterwards with the team that defeated him: Craig Wood and Robert Hodges from McGuireWoods and Rivanna boss Tom Frederick.
One man's water lawsuit against four local governments was tossed out of court Friday as a judge dismissed the case and, in a separate ruling, validated the lead defendant's request to issue millions of dollars in bonds– although the judge did grant the litigant's demand that no physical assets could be used as bond collateral.
"I think I'm a winner and a loser," says Stan Braverman after the May 18 hearing. "We lost the case, but there are certain aspects we won on."
A lawyer, Braverman sued Tom Frederick and the other government backers of the so-called Community Water Supply, a project that controversially brought in corporate boosters to tout a massive dam to replace all three existing urban reservoirs. Besides provoking an array of physical and political controversies, the legal controversy swirled around a 3-2 vote in January by City Council instead of the super-majority Braverman was demanding.
In his lawsuit, filed in March, Braverman alleged that City Council disingenuously portrayed its transfers of public property as leases to evade its own charter and the Virginia Constitution. If his nightmare scenario panned out, future generations of Charlottesvillians might be forced to come begging Albemarle County if they end up needing additional water.
"This is an argument right out of Kafka," scolded defense counsel Robert Hodges. "The Constitution understands the difference between a sale and a lease-hold; Mr. Braverman apparently does not."
Braverman, however, contended that the language in the transfer documents seemed chosen to avoid the Constitution's 40-year lease cap. But the term seemed like a point the judge could clarify on her own.
"These are leases," said Albemarle Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins, "and they are not in excess of 40 years."
Such findings from the bench, Braverman notes, mean that Charlottesvillians in the year 2052 can take their land– and, more importantly, their water rights– back. Braverman says Higgins gave him much of what he wanted, which seems to include the peace of mind from knowing that the City still owns 100 percent of reservoir lands including the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.
Peace might not be the operative word at Ragged Mountain for long because that area– a longtime bird sanctuary– will soon be disturbed by the sounds of dynamite and buzzsaws for what critics see as an unnecessary reservoir that requires the clearance of 150 acres, the removal of 54,000 trees, and convoys of trucks.
Still, Judge Higgins made a pair of factual rulings that Braverman lauds as crucial to the permanent record.
"The court cannot find that there is a sale," said Higgins. "The word 'lease' is consistently used. The language is clear and express."
While stopping short of conceding that his quest has ended, Braverman notes that any appeal might actually jeopardize such factual findings.
"By the implication of this decision," says Braverman, "the City can get its water back, and that's great."
But in a City that recently required the better part of a year– and the assistance of ground-penetrating electronics– to find its own historic time capsule, what's to say that anyone will remember Judge Higgins' findings 50 years from now?
"Get a certified copy," says Braverman. "It should be microfilmed."
After the hearing, Rivanna Authority director Tom Frederick pronounced himself pleased with the rulings and noted that North Carolina-based Thalle Construction, which won the right to proceed earlier this year, has already begun creating a mobilization area in Ragged Mountain and improving the access for its machinery along Reservoir Road.
If Braverman's volunteer quest ends with Higgins' ruling, it was not without some color. Activist Stratton Salidas was one of three citizens allowed to address the court.
Salidas took the opportunity to blast Mayor Satyendra Huja for brushing aside critics such as himself by wrongly asserting that Nestlé Waters had reneged on its million-dollar contribution to the Nature Conservancy to make the Charlottesville water plan a national model. (Both Nestlé and toilet-maker American Standard did follow through on their million-dollar promises, according to company reps; and Mayor Huja has apologized for his error.)
Salidas also noted that both a political action committee and the Nature Conservancy used the occasion of Charlottesville's last City Council elections to influence the process with "misinformation"-containing flyers.
"In fact," concluded Salidas, "there has been a great deal of mischief."
The judge decided to skip over the long-running debate.
"I look at the legality of the documents before me rather than looking at the underlying policy," said Higgins. "The documents are valid."
After the hearing, a reporter asked the other two citizens who spoke up if either was a spokesperson for City interests.
"The spokesperson for the City was supposed to be City Council," interjected Brian Irving, a baker who used his day off to attend the hearing. "But it didn't work out."