Editor's Note: In the print and earlier online versions, Style incorrectly reported the city's assessment of Sumpter Priddy's property. The current assessment is $186,600.
Talk about your uneven matchups: Virginia Commonwealth University, the 500-pound gorilla of the state's university system, versus Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., a slightly stooped octogenarian retiree with a broken hip and a walker.
The prize: a 100-year-old, 1,500-square-foot brick house at 310 N. Shafer St., in the heart of VCU's academic main campus.
Priddy, a well-known state lobbyist for nearly 50 years, has owned the North Shafer Street property since 1968. VCU thought wrongly, it turns out that the building it's rented from Priddy since the mid-1980s should belong to the university.
"Over the years, I've been pretty darned supportive of VCU," Priddy says. "I've given them pro bono work." But he wasn't about to give them a pro bono house, he says: "It really did sort of tick me off."
The foundation for the squabble was laid in 2000, when it was time for VCU to renew its lease. The university took the liberty of revising its lease agreement, inserting a few choice paragraphs of legalese that smelled a bit fishy to Priddy.
Flip-flopping the typical landlord/tenant arrangement, VCU stipulated that at the expiration of the five-year lease, it had the option to buy Priddy's building. In essence, VCU deigned to allow Priddy to continue as owner until such time as the college could collect what legally belonged to it at a price to be determined by VCU.
"I called, and my wife, [Robin], called, and told [the real estate agent handling the deal] we did not want to sell the property," Priddy says.
He says he was told the language only guaranteed a right of first refusal to VCU, and that his right as property owner was to continue owning his property until he decided to sell it. "Finally we did sign the lease," he says. "It was an error on our part, I can tell you that."
At the end of the lease came VCU's letter stating its intent to cash in on its agreement. It paid for two appraisals of the property and informed Priddy that it would be writing him a check for $169,000 for the house.
"And I said, Oh no," says Priddy, who at 82 is fairly certain he doesn't look like he was born yesterday. "It was right there on Shafer Street, which is the main thoroughfare onto campus. I told them no."
In July 2006, VCU, through the VCU Real Estate Foundation, filed suit against the Priddys, charging a breach of contract in an attempt to seize ownership of the house. In addition to the property, assessed at about $186,600, the college wanted the Priddys to pay it $250,000 in damages.
"The [VCU-hired] appraisers testified in court," Priddy says, "but my lawyers tied them up in knots." VCU's argument that it could force Priddy to sell his property got a bit tangled as well, according to Priddy: "They flubbed the dub."
Richmond Circuit Court Judge T.J. Markow sided with the Priddys in April, denying VCU's attempt at asserting what amounts to squatters' rights.
In the wake of its loss, VCU is moving on and has not renewed its lease with Priddy. A VCU spokeswoman did not respond by press time to requests for comment on the case.
"I can understand where [VCU president] Dr. [Eugene] Trani was coming from in wanting the building," Priddy says, "but this is David and Goliath."
Note to VCU: David won. S