Efforts by the city to acquire land in Shockoe Bottom for a planned slavery commemorative site are moving forward, but the owners of that land say they’re not interested in selling and will fight attempts to take it by eminent domain.
At the Richmond City Council’s meeting Monday, Stephen Clarke, an attorney representing the Loving family, said his clients “oppose any acquisition” of the land that the city is looking to buy from them, and that they “intend to resist the taking of their property” should the city pursue it through its powers of eminent domain.
Clarke, a partner with Norfolk firm Waldo & Lyle, which focuses on eminent domain law, said the Lovings were not notified that the city intended to acquire the property until they read a report about it last month in Richmond BizSense. The land consists of 12 parcels totaling roughly 1.75 acres just east of the Main Street Station train shed.
“The Lovings have been longstanding members of the community and in particular have had a lengthy presence in Shockoe Bottom,” Clarke said, referring to the family’s Loving’s Produce Co., which ended operations last year after a nearly 75-year run, and their considerable land holdings in the area.
“In spite of that, the City of Richmond abdicated its responsibility to contact the Lovings about the potential acquisition of their properties,” Clarke said. “That’s a complete failure of due process.”
Clarke called on councilmembers to deny a requested public necessity declaration that authorizes the city to acquire the properties, and also mentions the possibility of eminent domain in the event of a non-agreement. But the council approved the declaration after hearing from Sharon Ebert, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and planning.
Ebert said the city intends to negotiate purchase terms with the Lovings and would pursue eminent domain only as a last resort if a deal cannot be reached.
“I want to assure the Loving family that it is the intent of the administration to faithfully negotiate for that purchase and sale, and to do a taking would be the last thing that we would like to pursue,” Ebert said. “If we ever get to that point in the negotiations, we would advise the council that we were unable to faithfully negotiate for the purchase.”
Regarding the lack of notification to the Lovings, Ebert said Tuesday that the city’s process for contacting a property owner of an acquisition proposal ahead of an authorization declaration “was not advised” by the city attorney’s office.
“Clearly the Loving family knew of the desire of the City to acquire their properties prior to the Council meeting,” Ebert said in an email, citing an announcement last summer by Mayor Levar Stoney about the project, now referred to as the Enslaved African Heritage Campus.
That announcement, Ebert said, “…was the result of an intensive and lengthy community planning process, which clearly indicated that the Campus area included parcels owned by the Loving family.”
In July, Stoney announced that the city would commit between $25 million and $50 million for the campus project through a budget amendment in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan. An initial $1.7 million established the project fund earlier this year, and additional allocations are expected in future budgets.
Stoney said $3.5 million would be invested specifically in a planned memorial park. The campus also would include a slavery museum and encompass sites such as the Lumpkin’s Jail/Devil’s Half Acre site and land known as the African American Burial Ground. The two blocks that involve the 12 Loving parcels would be used as an archaeological site and house the slavery memorial and other campus features.
The latest city assessment valued the Loving parcels collectively at $2.4 million. The city’s purchase would be based on fair market values determined through appraisals and funded through a project allocation in the city’s capital improvement plan, according to an October memo from Ebert. The city Planning Commission voted in support of the move earlier this month.
The campus project has been taking shape for years with help from groups such as Shockoe Alliance, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A conceptual plan for the campus was released in recent years and is posted on some of those groups’ websites.
In his remarks Monday, Clarke maintained that there is not “a concrete plan” for how the Loving properties would be used, and he said any compensation to the Lovings for the properties must include not only the parcels’ value but also “any damages to adjoining properties caused by the taking, and compensation for lost profits.”
He said the family has tried for years to discuss potential acquisitions of portions of their properties but have never been granted an audience with city staff. He referred specifically to properties the family owns north of Broad Street, where a 5-acre tract is currently being positioned for a privately developed mixed-use project.
“At some point, the city needs to understand that its citizens and business owners are not automatically adversaries and that cooperation and communication are important tools,” Clarke said.
“To be clear, the Lovings oppose any acquisition of these properties by the City of Richmond, but they even more strongly oppose the process, or lack thereof, which brought us here,” he said. “Should the city wish to engage in discussion with the Lovings about these properties, we welcome that, but such discussion should not come with the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the Loving family in the form of the invocation of eminent domain.”
Should the city pursue eminent domain, Clarke said the Lovings “intend to resist the taking of their property through every legal means available to them.”
Later during the meeting, Councilmember Kristen Larson asked Ebert to confirm that the city is looking to purchase the land at market value and not through eminent domain. Ebert replied that that is the case.
“It is the intent to negotiate in good faith based on a fair market appraisal to purchase all of the parcels,” Ebert said.
Larson said Tuesday the lack of notice to the Lovings seemed “out of ordinary” but that she was supportive of the request based on Ebert’s comments.
“I was happy to hear (Ebert) say it was not an eminent domain situation,” Larson said. “That certainly would have changed my vote.”