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Preservation Group takes State to Court

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"This is really an outrageous violation of the public trust by the commonwealth," says Rae Ely, president of The Historic Greensprings Inc. The trial will be the first in Virginia to test the state's conservation easement policy and deal with issues of groundwater rights, Ely says.

Randy Davis, deputy director of communications for the office of the attorney general, declined to comment because the suit is pending.

In the complaint, the preservation group alleges that the state circumvented the Code of Virginia in selling the land for development, ignoring the area's federal designation as a national treasure. "It didn't get any more consideration than a vacant lot next to the garbage dump," says the group's attorney, David Bailey.

The land in question is 140 acres in the Green Springs National Historic Landmark District, a 14,000-acre area of farmland and old houses in western Louisa County. For 30 years, the land belonged to the state Department of Corrections, which had once planned to build a prison there. But in January 2001, the property was transferred to the Virginia Department of General Services, the agency responsible for disposing of surplus property.

In August 2001, DGS agreed to sell the land to Virginia Western Land Co. for $315,000 — money which ironically, says Ely, was slated to purchase and preserve state parkland. The developer said it would only build a few houses on the land, Bailey says. Instead, he says, it began drilling 600-foot wells to obtain water for a planned 1,200-house development outside the historic district.

Neighboring landowners found out about the sale in April, when they saw well rigs rising. They joined Historic Green Springs in obtaining an injunction to stop the drilling, then filed suit against the state to void the developer's contract.

The Code of Virginia requires that the governor and the secretary of natural resources give their final approval when the state is selling any surplus property. The suit alleges that DGS failed to get that approval, never notified any state agencies concerned with historic properties, conducted no groundwater studies and considered nothing but the price the land would bring.

The trial was originally set for Dec. 5, but snow forced its rescheduling for an as-yet-undetermined date.

— M.S.S.

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