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Herring's office may weigh in on Alms House ownership

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring may help Shenandoah County figure out who owns the former Alms House.

County Attorney J. Jay Litten told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that he is considering asking Virginia's chief prosecutor to weigh in on the question of ownership of the Alms House site near Zion Church Road. Research has not turned up a deed for the property destroyed in an April 13 fire.

The question of whether or not the county ever owned the Alms House arose after a closed session in which the board discussed the matter with Litten. Chairman David Ferguson acknowledged at the time that the county could not find a deed that would show ownership of the property.

Litten at the Tuesday meeting updated the board on his efforts to research the matter.

In 1974, Caroline County faced a similar situation over a question of ownership and went to the attorney general for an opinion. The state agency found that Caroline County had ownership of the property. Caroline County's arguments and strategy seemed to mirror Shenandoah County's. Litten advised that an attorney general's opinion could carry some weight.

Supervisors Chairman David Ferguson asked if an attorney general's opinion would give the county the documentation it needs to obtain proof of ownership. Litten said just the opinion wouldn't do it but could give him leverage.

Litten told the board he didn't want to brief members in open session about ways he could litigate to clarify the title issue.

"It's a really complex issue," Litten said.

In 1774, two deeds to the trustees of the Beckford Parish, part of the Church of England, called for property in the county to be held as "glebes" or land controlled by a rector or a priest of an Anglican parish, Litten said, referring to his research. Land was used to benefit area poor people, Litten said.

In 1799, the lay leaders of the newly formed Beckford Episcopal Church petitioned the Virginia General Assembly, asking the state to take over the glebe land and give the county a place to benefit poor people, Litten said. The next year the legislature acted and authorized the local circuit court to enter an order that gives the land to the county.

"Unfortunately, there's no record of the circuit court ever entering that order," Litten said. "That trail seems to stop there."

The legislature passed another statute in 1802 that dealt with all glebe lands still held by the Episcopal Church. This law directly gave the lands to the "overseers of the poor" in every county. The legislation sparked concern by people worried that it meant the government could take land from a church and give the property to someone else.

In 1938, the general assembly abolished the "overseers of the poor." However, it remains unclear who succeeded the "overseers" as owners of the glebe properties. Litten argued that Shenandoah County succeeded the "overseers." Litten ran the information by the county's title company, which subsequently declined to issue a title based on the research.

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

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