Town of Buchanan officials and Shenandoah Cable Television LLC officials responded last week to a lawsuit filed by the heirs of a Buchanan family over provisions in a deed that granted a well lot to the town in 1955.
The heirs of the late Charles Stinnett Sr. and the late Margaret Stinnett filed the suit in August alleging the town and Shenandoah Cable Television (Shentel) triggered a “reversion clause” in the 62-year-old deed for the 0.6 acre that was to be used as a town well and reservoir at the end of north Bridge Street.
Woods Rogers PLC attorney Francis Casola filed the suit in Botetourt Circuit Court for Rebecca S. Lennox, Sara S. Masonon, Kathleen S. Bennett and Charles Stinnett Jr.
The suit alleges the senior Stinnetts conveyed the property to the town in 1955 with the understanding should the property ever be used for any purpose other than as a public water supply, the property would revert to the Stinnetts’ ownership.
In 1981, the Stinnetts consented to allow the use of the property “as a site for a Cable TV Antenna.”
In June 2014, the suit alleges the town entered into a 20-year lease agreement with Shentel for the placement and installation of modern communications equipment that includes “at least four large satellite dishes.”
The suit says, “The Town’s use of the Property for the placement and use of telecommunications equipment is for a ‘purpose other than as a public water supply, and for a purpose other than ‘as a site for a Cable TV Antenna.’”
The suit says the Stinnetts nor their heirs consented to the use of the property for telecommunications equipment in the nature installed by Shentel.
The attorney for the Stinnett heirs notified the town in April 2016 that the “reverter clause” had been triggered and the heirs were taking possession of the property.
The suit then alleges the town has refused to recognize the heirs’ ownership of the property and has continued in possession of the lot, and Shentel has continued in possession of the property under its lease with the town.
The Stinnetts are asking the court to eject the town and Shentel from the property, allege the town has trespassed and removed and sold subterranean water from the property, deprived the owners of its value by “wrongfully removing” the water, and have been damaged by the town’s conduct.
Also, the suit alleges the town has received “unjust enrichment” by retaining the benefits of the sale of the water and Shentel lease.
The Stinnett heirs are seeking $35,000 and interest in compensatory damages for the sale of the water and $55,000 and interest in compensatory damages for the continued lease.
The suit goes on to ask that the court uphold the reversion clause and the heirs be able to take possession of the property and all improvements and fixtures on the property, and to award the costs of the lawsuit.
Both the town, represented by attorney Jeremy Carroll of Glenn, Feldman, Darby & Goodlatte, and Shentel, represented by Thomas Ullrich of Wharton, Aldhizer & Weaver PLC, dispute the Stinnett heir claims and argue in their November 14 and November 15 answers to the suit that the property is being used as was agreed to in the original deed and the 1981 agreement to allow a cable television antenna.
The town’s answer says, “The manner in which the Town has used the property as a public water supply and for the distribution of cable television signals is consistent with the terms of the 1955 deed and the 1981 consite and in keeping with the Stinnetts’ intent as reflected in the 1955 deed and 1981 consent.”
The town’s answer argues that the heirs have no right to ownership or possession of the property and no right to eject the town and/or Shentel from “their lawful ownership, possession, use and enjoyment of the property.”
The town’s answer also argues the its continued ownership is “protected by the principals of approximation, cy pres, and similar equitable doctrines, claims and defenses, including without limitation those related to the liberal construction of charitable and other gifts.”
The answer also claims the town is protected by the Uniform Trust Code of Virginia and the heirs’ claims are “barred, in whole or in party, by the doctrines of waiver estoppel, laches, unclean hands, acquiescence and/or sovereign immunity.”
The town also argues that the heirs’ claim for “ejectment” and claims of trespass, conversion and unjust enrichment may be barred by Virginia’s statutes of limitations.
In its answer, the town also notes it has invested significantly in the property and if were ejected, it would be entitled to compensation for the improvements related to the water supply infrastructure, and amount the town set at $76,329.
If the town is ejected, it is asking the court to require the heirs to compensate the town for those improvements.
The town’s answer also asked the court to dismiss the suit and award the town its costs.
Shentel’s answer said there is no case against the company because it has not violated the terms of its lease with the town, nor does its use of the property “contravene the conditions associated with the grant of the property to the Town of Buchanan.”
Shentel, while denying any liability, also gave notice in its answer that should the court eject the town, the company intends to claim allowance for the improvements made on the property.
As of late last week, the Stinnett heirs had not answered the town’s and Shentel’s responses to the suit and no hearing dates had been set.