03/12/2013 07:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

National Slavery Museum Gets More Time To Protest $300,000 Tax Assessment

Pei Partnership Architects

FREDERICKSBURG -- A Fredericksburg judge on Monday allowed the U.S. National Slavery Museum more time to prepare its challenge to the city's efforts to sell off the museum's property to pay off more than $300,000 in back taxes.

The city had asked for the hearing in order to get permission to sell off the 38-acre parcel of land off Interstate 95 that was donated in 2002.

Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, who said he was hired as the museum's lawyer last week, requested a delay because he only recently started representing the museum.

Circuit Judge Gordon F. Willis rescheduled the hearing for May 28.

Morrissey also argued that the tax bill is incorrect based on a recent appraisal of the property.

The city has assessed the property at $7.63 million, but an appraisal done in January values the property at $1.7 million. The change is due, in part, to a series of restrictions that limit how the property can be used.

Morrissey said it was "unconscionable" that the city would proceed to recoup taxes based on the previous assessment, and that he would not allow former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the museum's founder, to be "kicked around."

Asked if the museum could pay a discounted tax bill if a judge agreed with his client, Morrissey said he could not discuss the issue.

Fundraising for the museum project, attorneys say, has been hampered by notoriety from the court cases.

John Rife, a partner with Chesterfield County law firm Taxing Authority Consulting Services which is representing Fredericksburg in the matter, said the appraisal was done not as a tax assessment but to determine the value of the property in order to sell it.

But despite the potential selloff and a pending federal lawsuit, the museum's attorneys claim that plans for a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg are alive and well.

"The governor continues to see this project as [viable], and the goal is to see it to fruition," Morrissey said, referring to Wilder.

Wilder, who appeared in court and shook hands with bystanders, referred all questions from the media to Morrissey.

Fredericksburg Treasurer G.M. "Jim" Haney said the museum had time to protest the tax assessment. "They had time to complain or have it changed," he said. "That time has passed."

Rife said the museum has the right to challenge the assessment, but it's a separate issue from the city's attempt to collect back taxes.

"They're not saying that they shouldn't owe any tax at all, they're saying it ought to be lowered. That's fine," he said. "It's just a shame its taken five years for them to come up and say anything about it."

In addition to its fight with the city of Fredericksburg, the museum is being sued in federal court in Richmond by Pei Partnership Architects. The New York City firm designed the museum and claims it is owed more than $6 million.

The company filed a lawsuit in Richmond challenging the deed restrictions placed on the property. Pei argues the restriction shouldn't be enforceable if the property is sold.

"If Pei Partnership is successful in this new case, the property can be sold at auction at a much higher price, or it may even lead the way to the museum selling or mortgaging the property to clear its just debts," said Paul Prados, Pei's attorney.

Celebrate Virginia South, which donated the property to the museum with the restrictions, will ask a federal judge Friday to dismiss Pei's lawsuit.

The National Slavery Museum filed for bankruptcy in September 2011, but the case was dismissed in August.

At the time, the museum's attorneys said an unnamed donor had agreed to directly pay the real estate tax lien by the city of Fredericksburg.


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