Supervisors settle lawsuit for $130,000

By Christina Dimeo, editor

The Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors has agreed to pay $130,000 to settle a lawsuit against them.

Katie and Walker Ward filed suit Jan. 19, 2018, over the board’s December 2017 decision to rezone a 90-acre parcel of land off Route 250 in Troy from agricultural to industrial. LKQ Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, intends to build an auto reclamation facility on the land.

The Wards, who own 70 acres adjacent to the LKQ site, passionately opposed the rezoning, saying the auto reclamation facility would severely impact the peace and rural atmosphere of the land.

Supervisors and the Wards signed a Feb. 4 settlement agreement in which the board agreed to pay the Wards $130,000. The board approved the agreement following a closed session meeting Feb. 6.

Supervisors also agreed to provide for clean-up of the stream that runs between the LKQ parcel and the Wards’ land. The stream will be tested quarterly by the Department of Environmental Quality. The board pledged to request that the unoccupied house on the LKQ parcel be examined to determine both its possible historical significance and whether it houses any historically significant artifacts.

The settlement is an agreement between supervisors and the Walkers on mutually acceptable terms for resolving the dispute. It is not an admission of liability or other improper or unlawful conduct.

Both supervisors and the Wards have requested that the court permanently dismiss the case.

Substance of the lawsuit

The Wards’ lawsuit claimed that proposed LKQ facility would “lower their property value through increased traffic, noise, dust, offensive smells, environmental harms through leakage of toxic fluids into the creek that adjoins [their] property, and the replacement of serene natural views with industrial buildings and junked cars.”

They also alleged that supervisors issued inadequate notice of the proposal to rezone and failed to submit the rezoning proposal to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). They claimed the rezoning failed to serve a genuine public purpose.

Supervisors filed a demurrer stating that they complied with the law when issuing notice of the rezoning and that they did, in fact, inform VDOT about the proposal.

While not all Fluvanna residents agreed with the board’s rezoning decision, and opposition to the proposed LKQ facility clearly existed, supervisors claimed their decision was nevertheless reasonable.

The demurrer quoted the Virginia Supreme Court’s rubric to evaluate reasonableness of a county’s zoning action: “Legislative action is reasonable if the matter in issue is fairly debatable. An issue may be said to be fairly debatable when, measured by both quantitative and qualitative tests, the evidence offered in support of the opposing views would lead objective and reasonable persons to reach different conclusions.”

Reactions to the settlement

The two primary lawyers involved in the lawsuit had differing opinions on the outcome.

“The settlement of the Ward case vindicates the board’s decision to rezone the property and clears the way for an important step toward economic development,” said County Attorney Fred Payne, who represents the Board of Supervisors.

“In general, cases challenging zoning decisions are almost impossible to win,” said John Simpson, the Wards’ attorney. “That Fluvanna County paid my clients $130,000 to dismiss their case is no insignificant matter.”

Katie Ward reflected on why she and her husband decided to settle. “We are just regular people,” she said. “Perhaps if we had unlimited resources, we may have taken a different path. But the emotional and financial strain of this lawsuit was taking its toll on us, and I know going to trial, regardless of the outcome, would have left us hurting even more. We had to make the best decision for our family. The settlement will cover our legal fees, provide some compensation for adverse impact on our property from the junkyard, and allow us to move on with our lives.

“I think the one good thing to come out of all of this is that we shed light on how important it is for our elected officials to do their due diligence,” Ward continued. “Especially after this case, I hope our representatives will actually listen to us, and be more transparent, purposeful, and thorough when such decisions have to be made in the future. We proved to the county that Fluvanna residents aren’t sitting idly by while impactful decisions are being made.”

“In the pursuit of economic development, it has been my experience that it is natural to encounter opposition,” said Supervisor Tony O’Brien. “Looking back at the heated debate that was held when Tenaska applied for two plants, and all the fear and concern, I believe that it is fair to say the county would have benefited from both plants. I think the same is true for LKQ. It is a Fortune 500 company that will bring needed jobs to the area, reinforces the county’s investment in infrastructure at Zion Crossroads, and highlights the strength of the area. I expect that, just like Tenaska, LKQ will prove to be a great corporate citizen.

“The settlement and the board’s commitment to targeted economic development are key toward the continued competitiveness of our county and our ability to provide quality core services while diversifying the tax base,” he said.

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