PHOTO: Slave auction block

IS Fredericksburg’s Architectural Review Board irrelevant? That, in essence, is the position taken by City Attorney Kathleen Dooley, who argued in court documents that the city’s charter gives the City Council the legal authority to dispose of any city-owned property—in this case, the purported slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles streets—without the ARB’s approval.

Dooley was responding to a lawsuit filed against the city by the owners of a commercial building across the street from the auction block, which pointed to a section of the City Code that states that “no historic landmark, building or structure within the HFD [Historic Fredericksburg District] shall be razed, demolished or moved until the razing, demolition or moving thereof is approved by the ARB.”

Noting that Fredericksburg’s own “Official Guide” refers to the block as “one of the most compelling artifacts in the United States,” the lawsuit claims that the Olde Towne Butcher Shop and The Butcher’s Table restaurant would be negatively affected by the “virtually inevitable decline in neighborhood foot traffic, tourist trolley traffic and foot traffic that would result upon the removal of such a major tourist attraction.”

It’s debatable whether these businesses would suffer financial harm from the removal of the stone block, which has stood on the corner where slaves were once sold. What’s not debatable is that the City Council preempted the ARB in this process.

The seven-member ARB’s job is to “maintain the historic and architectural integrity of designated historic areas.” Anybody who wants to significantly alter or remove historic buildings or landmarks in Fredericksburg first has to obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the ARB. But after initially voting to keep the auction block where it was, the City Council reversed itself and voted 6–1 on June 11, 2019, to remove the block without first securing a certificate from the ARB.

On July 31, 2019, the city finally applied for a certificate of appropriateness from the ARB. However, citing the council action already taken, the ARB declined to issue one within the 90-day time limit because, as ARB chairman Jon Gerlach explained, the board’s hands were tied due to the council’s premature vote. The lawsuit later characterized the city’s after-the-fact application as “a belated recognition of the primacy of the ARB” in deciding such issues.

However, on Nov. 12, 2019, the City Council forged ahead and voted to grant a certificate of appropriateness itself to remove the slave auction block and place it in the Fredericksburg Area Museum, freezing the ARB completely out of the process. The lawsuit also claims that by doing so, the city violated the Dillon Rule, which only allows local governments such powers as are expressly granted to them by the state.

In asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, Dooley pointed to another section of the code that grants the council authority to decide appeals of ARB decisions. But there’s no ARB decision to appeal. The board was completely bypassed by the council.

It will be up to Circuit Court Judge Sarah Deneke to decide who’s right, although literally fighting City Hall is usually an uphill battle. However, if the city wins, it will set a precedent that leaves the ARB as a rubber stamp at best, without any real power to protect historic structures from being demolished by people who do not understand, or simply don’t care about the city’s long and storied history from colonial times to the present. That would be a great loss to a city whose identity is so interwoven with its past.

This could have been avoided if the city had followed its own rules and applied for a certificate of appropriateness from the ARB before voting to remove the slave auction block. In the future, we hope the city follows the proper sequence and allows the ARB to do its job.

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