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Fredericksburg officials consider tax-exemption request from Slavery Museum

Date published: 6/25/2008


The U.S. National Slavery Museum won't qualify for exemption from city real estate taxes until it starts building on the 38 acres it owns in Celebrate Virginia.

That's the message the Fredericksburg City Council sent with a 6-1 vote last night denying the museum's request for a tax exemption. Councilman Hashmel Turner cast the only vote against denying the exemption.

The museum, through attorney Charlie Payne, continues to argue that it qualifies for exemption not based on whether it is using the property, but because state law puts organizations that are set up to establish museums in a special category of exempt entities.

Payne said that means the Slavery Museum shouldn't have to start using its land before it becomes exempt.

The city and the museum are at odds over when this "use test" applies.

City Manager Phillip Rodenberg had suggested the city could grant an exemption on the tiny slice of property on which the museum operates its Spirit of Freedom Garden.

But after the museum asked for an up-or-down vote on its request for the full property, council denied it last night.

The legal debate also raised questions about the city's relationship with the museum.

Vice Mayor Kerry Devine said that since former governor and museum founder L. Douglas Wilder first announced that he planned to build the museum in Fredericksburg, the council had approved a $1 million gift, a height variance for the building and generally been supportive.

As Payne harped on the fact that the exemption should be granted solely because of the group's classification as a museum, Devine said, "My question is where is the museum? ... This community deserves more of an answer than, 'We're still working on it.'"

Museum Executive Director Vonita Foster suggested the city needed to be more patient.

"Building a museum is very expensive. Very expensive. This is a national museum. It is not a city museum, it is a national museum," Foster said. "I don't understand with the economy the way it is, why you don't understand why we can't begin construction."

Turner pointed to the agreement with which the Silver Cos. gave the land to the museum, which restricted its use for that purpose.

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