A Fairfax judge ruled last week that a group of Mount Vernon residents in the Wellington subdivision have no rights to a park on the Potomac River that they claim belongs to the public.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Middleton said that the half-acre riverfront park, purchased by an Alexandria resident who plans to build a house on it, was neither a public nor a neighborhood park.
Middleton said that although the lot is recorded as a park on the original subdivision plat filed with Fairfax County in 1912, Virginia laws do not make the presumption that the park is public property as are alleys and streets.
Wellington residents sued Richard C. Morauer after he bought the park for $5,000 in 1983 from the heirs of the subdivision's original owners living in upstate New York. In 1984 Fairfax assessed the disputed land at $91,600.
Until that sale, the neighborhood had used the park as an area for launching boats, swimming and picnicking for nearly 73 years. They maintained that when the original owners and developers recorded the plat in the county's land record office, it became public property.
Lawyer for the Wellington residents Marian K. Agnew, an activist in Fairfax land-use issues, said she was not surprised at the decision.
"I was surprised that I was able to get in as much evidence as I did," Agnew said. She said she and some of the residents plan to appeal the decision.
Agnew introduced several witnesses who attested to the public's use of the park since 1912, including the written testimony of two women, 78 and 80, who were too ill to come to the hearing. A former worker in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, also testified that his work crew had maintained the park in the 1930s.
Morauer's lawyer Jerry K. Emrich, a partner in a firm of Walsh, Colucci, Malinchak and Emrich, which represents a number of major developers in Northern Virginia, brought in three county employes as witnesses. One of them was the current supervisor of assessments for Fairfax County, Samuel Patteson, who was responsible for removing the park from the tax-exempt roll after Morauer showed him a deed to the park.
It is still unclear how the park came to be designated as tax-exempt property when the assessor's office determined the tax status of all county land in the early 1950s, Patteson said.
Patteson recalled that upon consulting with a county attorney in Fairfax as to the validity of Morauer's deed to the park, he was advised to "tax the man Morauer ." Morauer subsequently paid three years in back taxes for the park in order to retain ownership.
"There wasn't much law in 1912. The precedents work against these people the[Wellington residents]," Middleton said. "At this point, Morauer's title stands."
He also said that Agnew did not prove that the original developers induced people to buy lots in the Wellington subdivision by using the park as a selling point. Because the original landowners, Eugene and Harriet Frost, died over 65 years ago, their exact intentions for the park may never be known.
"As I listened to her [Agnew's] argument, a pure sense of justice seems to ring, but that is tantamount to saying there is a presumption in the law," said Middleton referring to the presumption that the county automatically accepted the park when the plat was recorded.
Wellington resident Harry B. Lyon echoed the feelings of many of his neighbors. "There's tremendous resentment against Fairfax County for allowing this to happen. They were just giving away public property," Lyon said.
In a private agreement, Morauer will allow residents in the subdivision to use an eight-foot path and 50 feet of beachfront from which to launch their boats and canoes, said his lawyer Emrich. He still plans to build a house, Emrich said.
Morauer said he didn't think it would take as long as it has to prove his claim to the land. "I have to be pleased with it the ruling . I have to be satisfied with it," Morauer said.
He also said that he does not mind that his courtroom adversaries may one day be his neighbors. "It doesn't bother me. Time takes care of a lot of things. There are friendly people there," Morauer said.