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Posted March 17, 2014 | comments Leave a comment

Supervisor questions use of land gift

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Some heirs of Zula Wagner want their family's 300 acres back from Shenandoah County, a supervisor says.

The Board of Supervisors voted last March to accept the farmland in the southwestern part of the county and turn the property into a regional park. Wagner died in 2012 and left the land to the county for parks and recreational uses only. The county also plans to set aside part of the land for private farming.

But nearly a year later, District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey says some of Wagner's family want the land back. Bailey also questioned the county's use of any part of the property for farming, saying that goes against Wagner's wishes.

The topic came up at a work session on the fiscal 2015 budget as the Board of Supervisors discussed the spending plan for the county's Parks and Recreation Department. County Administrator Mary T. Price noted that the next fiscal budget contains no money for park development on the Wagner property.

Bailey said she wanted to put the topic on the board's April 3 meeting agenda "because there's a big push to give this back to the family because we don't have the money to put a park there."

Bailey said the county is opening itself up to a potential lawsuit because setting aside any part of the property for farming violates the wishes expressed in the will. Bailey said she received this information from Woodstock attorney Kevin Black. The county currently is seeking bids from parties interested in farming part of the property.

Board Chairman David Ferguson said the issue of the use of the land came up last year. Ferguson recalled that County Attorney J. Jay Litten did not see it as a problem with the proposed farming use as long as it involved a small portion of the entire site.

"Our attorney's looked at it once; I don't think that's going to change," Ferguson said.

Bailey told the board that, in a conversation with Black on Thursday, the attorney said the deed to the property had not been signed over to the county.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Pam Sheets said a deed for the transaction doesn't exist. Rather, the county acquired the property through a transfer of land now signed and recorded in the courts, Sheets said. "Kevin did not want to do a deed," Sheets said. Price said Black and Litten worked out the deal.

Bailey said that "...according to Kevin Black, it does not give us the freedom to farm it and do anything else other than set it up as a park, and he said he explained this to our attorney.

"What we are doing is opening ourselves up for a lawsuit," she said.

Bailey then said the board needed to talk more about the issue and consider giving it back. She made a motion to put the matter on the April 3 meeting agenda for discussion. District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz seconded her motion.

Supervisors John R. "Dick" Neese, Steven Baker, Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley and Ferguson voted against the motion to put the matter on the agenda.

Bailey has scheduled a Town Hall meeting on the subject at the New Market Volunteer Fire Department on March 26.

At the meeting last March, Ferguson and Neese voted against the motion to accept the gift. Ferguson said in making his decision that he worried about whether accepting the gift would tie the county's hands legally.

Neese said the county lacks the money to develop such a large park and should use the funds to improve recreational facilities it already maintains. Neese also noted that the park lies closer to Timberville in Rockingham County than it does to any major residential parts of Shenandoah County and he had voiced concerns about how the Sheriff's Office would monitor the park so far out.

Supervisors took several weeks to answer questions about the donation, the associated requirements and possible hurdles facing the county's use of the land. But the board ended up facing a tight deadline to make a decision or else the county would not receive the property.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com


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