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Court orders sale of slavery museum

By Jeremy M. Lazarus
Special to the Trice Edney Newswire from the Richmond Free Press

What is the status of the National Slavery Museum that former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has spent more than 10 years trying to build on a 38-acre site in Fredericksburg, Va.? Still undeveloped and now facing city sale of the land for back taxes.

Circuit Judge Joseph J. Ellis has now handed Fredericksburg a victory by issuing an order allowing the city to seize and sell the property. The city has been seeking to do so to collect more than $300,000 in unpaid taxes it claims the never-built museum has amassed since 2007.

Judge Ellis issued his ruling at a hearing in Caroline County. He did so after being informed that a potential deal for a private sale of the museum’s land had fallen through.

Wilder had been in negotiations with a developer seeking to build a minor-league ballpark and sports complex on the site that overlooks the Rappahannock River. After getting close, the deal fell apart before the hearing, the judge was told. Judge Ellis’ decision though, is unlikely to be the last word in this more than two-year-old tax dispute between the city and the museum that Wilder says he is still committed to develop.

The city has not yet set a date to auction the property. At this point, the museum has at least four ways to halt any sale. It can appeal Judge Ellis’ order, it can sell the property for at least enough to cover the city’s bill, it can refile for protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court or it can retain the land and pay off the city’s tax bill, even though that could be inflated.

“All of our options remain open,” said Joseph D. Morrissey, a state delegate who represents the museum. He said he would consult with Wilder, now a co-counsel, on the next step the museum would take to protect its property interest. He said Wilder told Judge Ellis during the hearing that the museum was prepared to pay the city’s tax bill “if the city would just tell him how much was actually owed” from 2007 to 2013.

Morrissey said the question of how much is due is the result of a dispute over the property’s value. The city valued the property at more than $7 million in 2007, but has since reappraised the land for $1.7 million due to deed restrictions and the recession.

The judge refused to hold up the city’s tax-sale request until there is a decision in a separate case the museum has filed against the city seeking correction of the tax bill based on the city’s finding the land is worth far less than originally thought. Additionally, the judge would not order the city to provide the museum with an updated tax bill, Morrissey said.

Instead, the judge said the museum’s only choice was to pay off the amount the city wants and then seek a refund if the museum believes it is being overcharged.

“In our view, that is just wrong. The museum should not be required to pay excessive taxes and then seek a refund,” Morrissey said, noting that the state Constitution bars localities from trying to collect higher tax amounts from property owners than are legitimately due. Wilder could not immediately be reached for comment.

Morrissey said Wilder asked him after the hearing, “‘How can a man’s property be seized when no one can tell him what the value of the property is or how much is owed in taxes?’ That is the crux of this case.”

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