Passing motorists can’t miss the huge sign that sits high on a hill above Culpeper’s newest highway, Colonel Jameson Boulevard.
To the uninitiated, the 12-foot-high billboard that is plastered across the entire length of an old commercial big-rig trailer is little more than a novelty.
To Richard Dwyer, whose land was taken to help build the highway that is generally referred to as the “inner loop,” this $1,700 sign is just another volley in a war with the town of Culpeper that is headed for a Circuit Court showdown later this year.
“First they took my dream. Then they took my rights. Now they’ve taken my land,” the sign reads. “Stop Culpeper’s abuse of eminent domain!”
It is an essential question of American government: How do you balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the public?
Dwyer is a working man who in 1979 began planning for his retirement by buying up small parcels along Mountain Run and Balds Run near the Old Rixeyville Road, where he grew up.
While some of the land was in a flood plain, other parts of the 26 acres were zoned for high-density residential development. When growth exploded around Culpeper in the early 2000s, Dwyer figured to capitalize on his investment.
At the time, the by-right zoning allowed him to build 344 units on the property, according to Lee Baines, a consulting engineer who helped lay out the planned project.
“In 2006, I had a written offer of $16.1 million for that land,” said Dwyer, whose father was a factory worker.
The proposed plan went to the town, which had some minor flood plain and holding pond issues, Baines said. By the time those problems were worked out, the economy crashed and Dwyer put the project on hold.
He resurrected it in 2013, but by this time the inner loop project, which was also put on hold during the Great Recession, was now ready to take off.
Dwyer, who had been slapped in the face by the economy in 2008, was now forced to turn the other cheek because the town wanted part of his land for the new road.
During negotiations, Dwyer said he tried to convince town officials to take the new road onto the Sperryville Pike at Gardner Street. He said he even offered to proffer a parcel to be added to Yowell Meadow Park.
But the Town Council decided to end the highway farther west at Virginia Avenue, which is closer to a number of subdivisions that were built during the 2000–05 boom.
Initially, according to the town’s comprehensive plan, the new road would just skirt Dwyer’s property. But a subsequent change placed the highway squarely in the middle of his land.
That’s when the bitterness began.
HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH?
As often happens, the town used eminent domain to take about 5.6 acres of Dwyer’s land while continuing to negotiate with him. Taking 20 percent of his property was bad enough, said Dwyer, but the part that was taken made the situation even worse.
“They took the buildable land and left me with the flood plain,” he said. “They’ve also cut me off from three acres near the [Culpeper] Christian School, to which I have no access.”
Baines said the town’s eventual route cost Dwyer 192 potential units, leaving him with 152.
“And fewer units drives up the cost of developing,” Dwyer said.
Colonel Jameson Boulevard opened more than a year ago. According to Culpeper Town Manager Chris Hively, the town has settled with all the property owners except Dwyer, who continues his battle to get what he believes his property was worth.
In April 2014, based on an appraisal it had made, the town decided that $466,467 was the value of Dwyer’s 5.6 acres and deposited a check for that amount with the court.
Dwyer, however, never saw a penny of that money, which, according to court records, was forwarded to the Maryland bank that held a $1.6 million deed of trust on the 16 small parcels involved.
Not accepting that amount, Dwyer hired noted eminent domain attorney Joseph Waldo of Norfolk to pursue the case in court. Taking Waldo’s advice, Dwyer also hired his own appraiser, who put the current market value of the property taken at $3.4 million (including damages).
When mediation last summer proved unsuccessful, the town hired a second appraisal group that this time placed the value of the land at only about $130,000.
Waldo calls this a “punitive tactic” designed to frighten Dwyer into settling for the original $466,000 offer, which he continues to refuse.
Should a jury decide that $130,000 is indeed a fair amount, Dwyer, by law, could be forced to pay back more than $336,000, which has already gone toward his deed of trust.
Meanwhile, the town, according to records obtained through Freedom of Information requests, has already spent about $425,000—almost as much as its offer to Dwyer—in legal, appraisal and other fees to fight this case.
“That is the most money I’ve ever seen spent in legal fees in my 24 years of doing eminent domain work,” said Waldo. “When we wouldn’t settle, their attitude apparently became, ‘We’re going to do whatever we need to do to defeat you.’”
ALLEN TUEL’S DEAL
Dwyer was one of two major landowners affected by the inner loop (snippets of land from other owners were used for the highway). The other was Allen Tuel, whose 6.7 acres near the Sperryville Pike was also taken for the highway and roundabout.
Tuel, who could have gotten 68 townhouses or 30 single family homes from development, reportedly was paid more than twice (including perks) what Dwyer is being offered.
“I had a hard time with the town,” Tuel said. “The guy they sent to negotiate with me was the most inconsiderate person I’ve ever met.”
Tuel said he threatened to throw the man out of his house after he twice said that the property, adjacent to Fairview Cemetery and along a main thoroughfare, “was not any good.”
“From then on, I would only negotiate with [town public works director] Jim Hoy,” he added. “I could have pushed it like Richard is doing, but my lawyer wanted $250,000 to fight the town and said it would take one to five years to settle it.
“I know I didn’t get a fair deal, but I didn’t want to spend five years in court.”
Tuel said three different developers offered him almost $3 million for his land in 2005, but they backed out when the town, with the new road in mind, refused to issue them permits.
Negotiating on his own and not wanting a prolonged court fight, the 68-year-old Tuel finally settled in 2013.
Dwyer, on the other hand, said he is willing to push the issue as far as it takes.
“This has cost me a lot,” he said. “The town didn’t want to work with me in the first place.
“I’ve worked all my life to buy this property and now I’m going to have to work the rest of my life to pay for all this. The town of Culpeper has taken everything I’ve worked for.”
THE TOWN’S RESPONSE
Although refusing to go into specifics on a case tied up in litigation, Town Manager Hively issued the following statement:
“The town carefully exercises its eminent domain authority, and made offers to purchase properties for Col. Jameson Boulevard for considerably more money than our appraisers said they were worth, in an effort to resolve cases rather than to litigate them. This includes Mr. Dwyer's case.
“The town not only has a duty to pay just compensation to landowners as constitutionally required, but also has a duty to be the guardian of the taxpayers' hard-earned tax dollars,” he added. “To that end, after the original offer to buy the necessary land from Mr. Dwyer, the town has retained a group of highly qualified experts to evaluate the property and Mr. Dwyer’s experts’ opinions.
“That team has concluded that the original offer was over fair market value. The town cannot squander taxpayers’ money by paying an amount that grossly exceeds our experts' appraisal of what the property taken was worth.
“The town so far has spent $2,135,070 to buy fourteen properties for the Col. Jameson Boulevard project. Mr. Dwyer is the only party with whom the town has not been able to reach an agreement.”
The total cost of Colonel Jameson Boulevard — to this point — is $9.5 million, excluding litigation, Hively said.
Waldo said the town could spend another $1 million in legal fees before the fight is over.
The case is scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 31.