Rappahannock Area Grassroots' lawsuit to oust the Fredericksburg mayor and City Council was thrown out of court yesterday after attorneys for both sides moved for its dismissal.
The case was brought by the group in response to the mayor and council's actions last August to rezone 544 acres of land for the Celebrate Virginia project. Members of the group charged that the local leaders acted negligently in their duties because they ignored the wishes of residents.
But Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Richard Trodden, who was assigned as special prosecutor for the case, has said for weeks that he would not proceed with the case. Trodden wrote a letter to leaders of the group in June saying that he could find no evidence of negligence or wrongdoing. He repeated that in a brief statement to Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge James A. Cales, who was brought in to hear the case, yesterday.
Trodden could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Despite Trodden's letter and the specter of defeat, Rappahannock Area Grassroots pushed for its day in court. After yesterday's move, however, members said that they were disappointed that the case was dismissed so quickly and that they did not have a chance to voice their arguments.
"Certainly for the community there's no catharsis here," said Paul Lewis, group spokesman. "This was no day in court. We weren't given an opportunity to rebut or answer or give any kind of evidence.
"They might as well have gone to a back room and shook hands," Lewis said.
Fredericksburg City Council members, who have been dogged by the suit for months, were not jubilant so much as relieved.
"I don't feel any particular sense of triumph or happiness," said council member George M. Van Sant. "I don't have any qualms about what we did; there was no substance to their accusations. It's nice that it's brought to an end. Now we can move on in more positive ways."
The case grew out of a public hearing last August at which hundreds of people jammed City Hall to speak about the rezoning application. A majority of speakers voiced their opposition to Celebrate Virginia. The City Council nevertheless approved the measure, allowing to go forward Celebrate Virginia, a massive complex planned for both sides of the Rappahannock River that will include a tourist campus, office park, golf courses and retail outlets. Rappahannock Area Grassroots was formed last August in response to the council's actions and to oppose Celebrate Virginia, both in Stafford County and Fredericksburg.
It has not been a productive year for the group. It has mobilized to oppose each step of the Celebrate Virginia project, but every application, whether it has been before the Stafford Planning Commission, Stafford Board of Supervisors or other agency, has been approved.
Undeterred, the group has shifted its focus to electing new leaders, something that Van Sant said it should have done in the first place.
Trying to legally oust the mayor and City Council was "sort of like going after a fly with a 105mm howitzer," Van Sant said. "I suggest we solve it at the ballot box."