By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne ruled on April 17 to send the long-debated controversy over lights at the T.C. Williams High School football stadium to trial.
The case is about whether Alexandria City Public Schools can legally add lights to Parker-Gray Stadium at T.C. Williams High School. The residents whose homes border the stadium allege that ACPS can’t add lights because it would be breaking a promise the school division made to those residents and their ancestors in the 1960s.
Residents from six of those neighboring households filed their original complaint in August 2018 and an amended complaint in December 2018. The defendants – the City of Alexandria and the Alexandria City School Board – have since attempted to have the case dismissed. Horne’s denial of those demurrers signifies that the case will go to trial.
The Supreme Court of Virginia appointed Horne to the case on Sept. 13, 2018 after all Alexandria judges recused themselves from all four lawsuits related to the stadium project, according to Roy Shannon, an attorney involved in the suits. Horne retired in 2013 and was brought out of retirement by special assignment to hear the case.
“The residents are very encouraged by the judge’s ruling,” Lars Liebeler, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said. “We’re still going to have to present our evidence at trial to a jury, but it’s a big victory for our side to be able to get this case to trial.”
The residents who filed the lawsuit have a long and complicated relationship with the city and schools. Many of them used to live in a predominantly African American neighborhood, derogatorily dubbed “Mudtown,” on the land where T.C. Williams now sits.
In 1965, the city took those residents’ land by eminent domain to build the high school, dislocating 39 families and 13 individuals, according to an Aug. 15, 1965 Washington Post article. Of those displaced, 16 families relocated to urban renewal homes built along the border of the high school.
The descendants of those families say that during the relocation, the city verbally promised to never light the stadium. The city reaffirmed the promise in writing in the development special use permit for the school’s 2004 modernization project.
The alleged promise is the basis of the residents’ lawsuit.
After the amended lawsuit was filed in December, the city and school board each made 11 legal arguments in an attempt to get the case dismissed without a trial. Among the arguments, the city and school board cite legal grounds that the Virginia Statue of Frauds requires the agreement to be in writing, that the plaintiffs lack standing and that agreements made by school employees would have been ultra vires – done beyond one’s legal power or authority.
“The defendants were attempting to short circuit the ligation on legal grounds saying just the fact that there’s no written agreement means we can’t even get into court to have a trial,” Liebeler said. “And the judge disagreed with that, and specifically, the judge relied upon the fact that there were a significant number of city and school board writings that acknowledge the existence of the agreement.”
The plaintiffs had filed multiple documents that they believe show the city and school board had acknowledged in writing the existence of an agreement with the residents not to install lights at the stadium, Liebeler said.
“Even if there’s not a full contract in writing between the parties specifically on this topic, when there are written documents and statements made by the defendants acknowledging the existence of the contract, that means you don’t have to have a full agreement in writing,” Liebeler said. “The promises are enforceable as a contract.”
In addition to the city and school board’s purported acknowledgement in writing of the verbal agreement, another reason Horne cited for overruling the demurrers was the fact that the defendants have been adhering to the no lights agreement for decades.
“The alleged lighting agreement is definite in its terms in that it unequivocally provides that the School Board and the City will not build permanent lights at T.C. Williams,” the order denying demurrers reads. “… Consequently, the Amended Complaint alleges sufficient facts to show part performance by the parties.”
Following Horne’s order overruling the 11 arguments and denying demurrers, which was released by the court on April 22, there will be a hearing in the near future to determine a trial date.
City spokesman Craig Fifer declined to comment on Horne’s decision outside of the judicial process.
“As with previous stages of this case, we will comment on the litigation through the judicial process,” Fifer said in an email.
ACPS Communications Director Helen Lloyd provided a similar comment.
“ACPS respects the legal process and understands the court’s decision at this initial stage of that process. We will not be commenting further at this time since legal proceedings are ongoing,” Lloyd said in an email.
The judge’s order does not specifically prevent the city or schools from installing lights, Liebeler said. However, if they do install lights and the residents prevail at trial, the lights will have to be removed at the city and schools’ expense, Liebeler said.
Former School BoardChair Ramee Gentry said in October 2018 that ACPS planned to begin construction on the stadium project in March 2019. No construction had begun as of April 29, according to Lloyd.
There are three other ongoing cases regarding the lights at T.C. Williams. Like the “promise” lawsuit, the city has filed demurrers to attempt to have the other three cases dismissed without a trial, according to Shannon. A judge will determine at a hearing on July 30 whether the two cases that deal with zoning matters will go to trial, and there will be another hearing this summer to determine whether the fourth case goes to trial, according to Shannon.