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Probe sought of how staff blew Matoaka

The Virginia Gazette
November 29 2006
By Rusty Carter

JAMES CITY — Supervisor Jay Harrison has directed county administrator Sandy Wanner to conduct an investigation into errors made in the eminent domain process of taking the land for Matoaka Elementary School.

“We were so confident,” Harrison said in an interview on Tuesday. “The presentations were always so positive. What went wrong?”

Until now, appointed and elected county officials have played down the eminent domain snafu as a minor technicality, but one upshot is that it has delayed the opening of the school.

The county failed to notify all the family landowners and got the frontage wrong. Both errors provided openings to challenge the entire eminent domain.

The county seized 44 acres from the Robert Armistead family after failing to reach a price for the land. The move was challenged by Travis Armistead, who said the county failed to follow the law in contacting all of the property owners.

Travis Armistead hired attorney Henry Howell III, who specializes in eminent domain. He sued the county by claiming the entire process was illegal. The case was transferred to Spotsylvania County because judges here all knew Travis Armistead's deceased father as a longtime circuit judge. Earlier this month, a circuit judge ruled against the county.

“The same questions that Henry Howell asked the supervisors were asked by the Planning Commission before the matter came to us,” Harrison said. “Whose responsibility was this? Was it the county attorney? Was it a staff member?

“Now we're doing a second take, and it may have the same sloppiness,” Harrison continued. “This is going to cost the county a boatload of money.”

No one is telling how much the impact has cost so far, but it could run hundreds of thousands for higher prices on the land.

Harrison is up for re-election next fall, but hasn't declared. He accepts some of the blame for voting both times for taking the land.

I hate condemnations,” he said. “I should have gone with my reluctancy. I agreed for the sake of unity, but it should have been a 4-1 vote, especially on the second take. We don't need the county to get a reputation as being a land bandit.”

Harrison also said the county erred extending the Primary Service Area for the school before it had the title.

“I was in those meetings,” he said. “We're stepping on our own big toe to put it inside the PSA in such a hurry. The land now has water and sewer access. It will be worth a whole lot more on the second take.”

Harrison noted that Howell warned the supervisors about the process repeatedly in public meetings. Howell persistently attended supervisor meetings twice a month even when the Armistead property wasn't on the agenda.

“We were told, ‘He's just doing his job,'” Harrison said. “Well, he did his job well.”

Harrison chose Wanner to investigate the matter rather than go to an outside source out of respect for his position. “In a way, he is responsible. He's the county administrator. I'll give Sandy a chance.”

Wanner has consistently bent over backward defending his staff through various scandals, but at least Harrison's mandate should generate a formal report.

Harrison intentionally didn't choose county attorney Leo Rogers. “He was part of the process,” Harrison noted. Rogers has exuded confidence in the county's position.

Harrison speculated that some of the errors may have been the result of overconfidence. The county earlier took land from the Armisteads for the desalination plant near Five Forks. Howell represented the Armisteads, and earlier this year the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed Howell's challenge in that case.

“The sense was, ‘We've been here before,'” Harrison said. “Howell learned from his mistakes. We shouldn't have expected him to do things the same way.”

Harrison placed no timetable on the investigation. “I hope there's no blanket put over this to make it go away,” he cautioned. “I want a real investigation.”