A lawsuit filed last month in Richmond alleges that the Virginia Department of Transportation, several Caroline County farms, the county’s senior environmental planner and an employee of the Hanover–Caroline Soil and Water Conservation Corps conspired to pollute and damage a woman’s property.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Edith Broadhead, who owns approximately 76 acres in the southern part of the county known as the Reedy Mill Tract.
The property includes Reedy Millpond, a recreational pond that is fed only by Reedy Creek, which is a tributary of the Mattaponi River.
The suit alleges that neighboring farms—including Broad Plains Farm, Broaddus Farm and the estate of the late Maxie Broaddus and the Peatross Farm—dug drainage systems that allowed agricultural pollutants to run directly into Broadhead’s land and the pond each time it rained or they watered their crops. The lawsuit names the farm directors and tenant farmers, for a total of 17 defendants.
The Reedy Mill Tract, like most wetlands, shorelines and waterway buffers in the state, is a Resource Protection Area under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act—meaning that it is considered environmentally sensitive because it protects water quality.
It is also considered a Zone A—high risk—flood zone under FEMA.
Most of the neighboring parcels included in the lawsuit also have portions of land that are RPAs and are in the same FEMA flood zone category.
Reedy Creek and Reedy Millpond, along with the rest of the Mattaponi River watershed, were found to have higher-than-recommended levels of E.coli in the most recent Virginia Department of Environmental Quality water monitoring reports. The entire watershed has been identified as impaired for recreational use due to E.coli levels.
Broadhead’s lawsuit alleges that neighboring farms clear-cut their land against FEMA’s recommendations for managing flood plains and “willfully and intentionally” created drainage systems that would flow into Reedy Millpond, causing “unauthorized entry upon and damage to” it, court documents show.
It also alleges that in 2017, VDOT installed or repaired culvert pipes to direct stormwater and irrigation runoff away from public roads and into Broadhead’s property.
In addition, the lawsuit accuses David Nunnally, Caroline County’s senior environmental planner, of “acting outside of his scope of employment, with gross negligence and/or in bad faith,” stating that Broadhead showed him evidence of trespass and damage to her property and that he told her there was nothing he could do about it, because “the water has to go somewhere,” as court documents quote him saying.
The suit argues that Nunnally was authorized to address these issues because the properties, as RPAs and flood zones, are subject to “local, state and federal statues.”
Finally, the lawsuit alleges that Broad Plains and Broaddus Farms “knowingly, willfully and intentionally” prepared a “grossly negligently and/or fraudulently prepared report” stating that irrigation ditches were properly maintained and not connected to adjacent wetlands. The report, dated Feb. 21, 2018, and based on a visit the day before, is signed by Sharon Conner, manager of the Hanover–Caroline Soil and Water Conservation District, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, flooding of Broadhead’s property that has occurred three times this summer has caused $250,000 in property damage.
The suit asks for $10 million in damages, claiming that Broadhead, her family and pets have been physically endangered, suffered emotional distress and have had to alter their lifestyle. She also claims that her plans to develop her property as a wedding venue have been impacted.
It raises the possibility that the “agricultural pollutants,” including sludge, which can contain E.coli and other fecal coliform bacteria, could have become airborne while going over a spillway.
In a phone interview, Broadhead said she and her late husband, Tom, bought the Reedy Mill Tract in 2000 as a weekend and summer home for themselves and their four young children. Starting around 2008, they spent time there less frequently because her husband changed job locations. She said she thinks it’s around this time that the alleged activities leading to the pollution of the pond occurred.
The couple moved back to live full time on the property in 2014. Tom Broadhead died of cancer at age 53 in 2016.
Broadhead said that when they first bought the property, Reedy Millpond was clear.
“You could see fish swimming eight feet down,” she said.
Now, she said, it’s cloudy and she can skim “buckets of sludge” off the surface.
She said people who grew up in the area tell her they used to swim and fish in the pond and that they have noticed its deterioration.
All of the 17 defendants except for VDOT have filed responses to Broadhead’s lawsuit. Many requested that the court venue be moved from Richmond to Caroline County.
In general, the responses that The Free Lance–Star was able to obtain ask for the lawsuit to be dismissed because they claim it does not prove the defendants conspired to trespass on Broadhead’s property, that it does not contain proof of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and that Broadhead wasn’t the “record owner” of the property until 2016, after some of the allegations occurred.
The attorney retained by Caroline County to represent Nunnally asked that claims against him be dismissed because there are no allegations that he conspired with anyone, and there is nothing to prove that he acted intentionally or with malice toward Broadhead.
“Because Nunnally did not provide plaintiff with the response she wanted, he has been frivolously dragged into this litigation without a basis in fact or a valid legal argument in support,” court documents state.
The Richmond City Circuit Court will conduct a hearing on moving the case to the Caroline Circuit Court on Nov. 30.
In a phone interview, Broadhead said she talked to several water quality experts during the course of preparing the lawsuit. One expert, who she said has developed relationships with several law firms, told her some of the attorneys see the potential for a class action lawsuit representing “everyone downstream” of Reedy Creek who may be affected by the presence of agricultural pollutants and bacteria in the water.
She said being told “the water has to go somewhere” is frustrating because prior to 2008, “the water was going somewhere else.”