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Easement lawsuit may be settled this month
Conservation easement lawsuit may be settled

Date published: 11/13/2012

By RUSTY DENNEN

A lawsuit over an unfinished easement on property adjacent to Moss Neck Manor in Caroline County is in settlement talks, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

Mark S. Gardner, local attorney for the plaintiff, Moss Neck Manor Plantation Inc., said that if a settlement is reached, the case will be dismissed in a hearing in Caroline Circuit Court scheduled for Nov. 29.

Thomas Wood, the lead attorney from Maryland who is handling the case for the division of the Silver Cos., could not be reached for comment.

Moss Neck Plantation Manor Inc. purchased 1,209 acres surrounding the historic manor house in 2004. That house is privately owned, and is not involved in the lawsuit.

The Silver Cos. subsidiary in March sued two conservation agencies over a proposed 300-acre easement on its property that was not completed.

Defendants are the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and its representative Estie Thomas, and The Conservation Fund and its representative J. Reginald Hall III. Attorneys representing them could not be reached for comment on a possible settlement.

The case centers on the preparation of the 300-acre easement initiated by The Conservation Fund in 2010.

The easement would have been part of the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program surrounding Fort A.P. Hill. The purchase price was $1.2 million.

According to the court papers, Moss Neck Manor Plantation Inc. filed an application, which was approved by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state conservation agency.

Then, the development company signed a contract with the nonprofit TCF to purchase the easement with Army funds. Since 2005, Fort A.P. Hill has been buying conservation easements on land outside the base to discourage commercial and residential development that might threaten its training missions.

On the eve of the closing last fall, the suit alleges, Thomas and Hall "attempted to extract more restrictive conditions in the deed" than those agreed upon by the VOF board of trustees. They wanted more property covered by the easement, according to the suit.

The easement was never completed, and the company is asking that the VOF be required to accept it, and that the agreed-upon purchase price be paid. It also seeks unspecified damages from Thomas and Hall; $1.35 million in damages against TCF; and attorney's fees.

John D. Gilbody, a Virginia assistant attorney general, challenged the allegations on behalf of VOF, arguing that sovereign immunity prevents such an action against the state agency, unless it is specifically waived. And he claims VOF and Thomas were not parties to the contract.

TCF attorney John Walker of Richmond in the filing contends that there was no breach of contract on the part of Hall or the conservation agency, because the sale of the easement was never completed.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com