Illegal transfer? Anti-Parkway plaintiffs make their case
Kenneth Shirley is not excited about the prospect of returning stockpiled materials for the Meadowcreek Parkway project. A construction engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation, he told a Charlottesville courtroom that $400,000 has already been spent on supplies.
"You can't return them like a pair of pants to Wal-Mart," Shirley testified Tuesday, May 19, in the trial that pits his Department against a determined band of local citizens who argue that last year's transfer of a nine-acre stretch of land from the city of Charlottesville to VDOT was illegal.
Jennifer McKeever, representing the plaintiffs, argued that the city sold the public land to VDOT illegally by evading a three-fourths supermajority vote required by the Constitution of Virginia for selling public land by settling for a 3-2 vote. The transfer was also approved by a 4-1 vote by the city’s School Board last May. McKeever argued that $43,120 VDOT gave the city represented a sale.
However, according to Spencer Dejarnette, a representative from VDOT and witness for the defense, the funds– intended for landscaping around the project– represent a permanent easement, not a sale.
And Lori Pound, an assistant attorney general defending VDOT, argued that the land was transferred from one public use to another, and no sale occurred.
Judge Jay Swett, presiding over the hearing in Charlottesville Circuit Court, said that the transfer could be problematic and an issue requiring further exploration, citing an Attorney General's opinion from 2004.
The plaintiffs contend that if the Parkway is completed their property values will decrease, and the level of noise, pollution, and traffic in their area will significantly increase.
From the City's point of view, City Attorney Craig Brown and Pound argued that the plaintiffs, which include a citizens group called the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park, had insufficient personal injury to sue.
McKeever countered by saying that the plaintiffs’ residency in the North Downtown area of Charlottesville and their individual participation in the North Downtown Residents Association grants them standing. Association president Collette Hall, for instance, said she had not missed a public hearing on the project.
"I feel like the sixth city counselor," Hall testified.
To expand their case, the plaintiffs introduced eight witnesses, including Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who testified that he opposed the roadway when Council voted on it last June.
VDOT attorney Pound argued that the state's injury would far exceed that of the plaintiffs' and stopping the project could cost VDOT as much as $20,000 a day. Of the $11.8 million budget for County's stretch of the Parkway, whose construction began in February, $1.4 million has already been spent, including the $400,000 for materials.
(The controversial Meadowcreek Parkway is slated for construction in three separate portions: Albemarle County's 1.4-mile part, the city's one-third mile stretch through McIntire Park, and the interchange at the Route 250 bypass and McIntire Road.)
Following the hearing, which lasted over six hours, Coalition member Stratton Saladis expressed optimism about his side's chances.
"I would bet on us," Saladis said. "But just barely."
Fellow plaintiff and Sierra Club chapter president John Cruickshank seemed pleased with the judge's handling of the hearing.
“He took our case very, very seriously and made a sincere effort to get all the information he needed to make a decision,” Cruickshank said. “Any decision he makes, we’ll accept it.”
To a point. Cruickshank also said there could be more potential legal action, including taking the case to federal court. “This is round one,” Cruickshank said. “Round two will be the main event.”
The judge gave no indication of when he might rule.