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Lawsuit over land use set for May trial

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Joint meeting 'opened a line of communication' within dispute

By Alex Bridges-abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- A lawsuit between Frederick County and Stephens City over the town's use of annexed land remains set for trial in May.

But elected officials from each locality say a joint meeting held Tuesday "opened a line of communication" and the possibility of a settlement.

Members of the Board of Supervisors and the Town Council convened for their first meeting on the dispute and immediately went into closed session to discuss the pending litigation.

Both panels emerged after more than an hour and voted on respective motions, stating they talked only about the matter for which they convened behind closed doors. Neither panel took any action before adjourning.

Mayor Joy B. Shull said after the meeting she could not comment about the discussion.

She reiterated her response of "no comment" when asked whether the localities had come any closer to reaching an agreement in the case.

Shull noted neither board had met jointly in this setting, then spoke generally about the closed-session talks.

"A line of communication has been opened," Shull told reporters.

Gainesboro Supervisor Gary Dove echoed Shull's remarks.

"I think it's going to open up communication for both sides so we'll have a better understanding so both sides, if there's any more rezonings, they'll know what the county wants," Dove said. "In the process we'll know what they're after."

A joint land-use agreement between the localities governs land the town annexed from Frederick in recent years.

Frederick County claims in its suit filed in June 2009 that plans for the "Russell-Stephens City" and "Davis" properties fail to adequately compensate the county for the anticipated increase in demand on basic services such as fire and rescue, transportation and schools. Both developments are proposed to be built on the annexed land.

But the town contends developmental models used to calculate the financial impact of both projects show they would have a positive effect.

The county asked the Virginia Supreme Court to convene a three-judge panel, hoping it would then would force Stephens City to comply with the county's interpretation of the agreement, or pay $5 million.

"Obviously, we had a disagreement; we're in a legal battle," said Supervisors Chairman Richard C. Shickle Sr. "Communication, most people think, can usually prevent legal battles. We drove down the road a little further."

More meetings may lie ahead.

"I think that most people expressed a desire to repeat something that they thought was positive," Shickle told reporters. "My experience has told me that you usually at least do it twice and either it becomes a regular mode of business or it gets canned because it really doesn't accomplish anything, so I suspect there will be at least another meeting."

"I think most people think that periodic meetings work," Shickle added.

Stephens City Town Manager Mike Kehoe stayed in the room, but County Administrator John R. Riley Jr., County Attorney Roderick B. "Rod" Williams and Deputy County Administrator Jay Tibbs left during the discussion. Red Bud Supervisor Christopher Collins left the meeting early.

The three-day trial is set to begin on May 16 in Frederick County Circuit Court, according to online records.

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