The Virginia Supreme Court has dismissed a pair of lawsuits that claimed the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County violated state law by entering into agreements related to a new Piedmont Family YMCA aquatic and fitness center in the city’s McIntire Park.
“Because we conclude the plaintiffs failed to assert a justiciable controversy, we will vacate the circuit courts’ judgments and dismiss the declaratory judgment actions,” reads the opinion by Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn.
“What the Virginia Supreme Court is saying is that the ACAC and the other fitness clubs had no right to bring these lawsuits in the first place,” said Kurt Krueger, chairman of the Piedmont Family YMCA.
The Charlottesville Fitness Club Owners Association filed suits against the city and county in May 2010. The association, which consists of ACAC and Gold’s Gym, alleged that local donations to the YMCA’s construction should have been governed by the Virginia Public Procurement Act.
That would have meant that other groups would have had the right to bid to provide the same recreational services.
The suit also claimed that for-profit fitness clubs should have been allowed to bid on a ground lease with the city to build and operate an aquatic and fitness facility in the western side of the park.
Under the use agreement, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors agreed to contribute $2.03 million to the construction of the facility and the city donated $1.25 million. The rest of the $14.5 million facility is to be paid for through a YMCA capital campaign.
In exchange, the city and county obtain the right to name members to the YMCA’s board of directors. Charlottesville Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins ruled against the fitness clubs, but they opted to appeal.
The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in June. A majority of justices on the court sided with Higgins.
“The fitness clubs are strangers to the board’s negotiations with the YMCA, including its decision to make a $2.03 million payment to the YMCA and enter into the use agreement,” Goodwyn wrote in the ruling.
In other words, in the case against Albemarle County, the fitness clubs were found to have no right to stake a claim because the Board of Supervisors is granted the authority to enter into such negotiations.
“Although ACAC alleges that it pays taxes in Albemarle County, it is not seeking to protect the interests of the taxpayers of Albemarle County and thus does not allege a justiciable controversy,” reads the ruling. “Nor has it alleged that the $2.03 million payment to the YMCA will impose an illegal tax burden or will otherwise injuriously affect the taxpayers of the county.”
Goodwyn also wrote that the fitness group’s case was weakened by the fact that the Piedmont YMCA was not a named party in the suit.
Additionally, the ruling hints that the argument may have been strengthened had the fitness club owners made a timely protest to the Board of Supervisors and the City Council.
The fitness clubs also argued that the city violated their equal protection rights by not opening up the ground lease to bids from for-profit companies.
Again, the Supreme Court ruled that they had no legal right to make that claim.
“The fitness clubs did not seek to bid on the lease, did not protest the council’s limitation to construction and operation of a non-profit facility, and did not otherwise seek a determination from the council as to whether they could submit a bid on the lease,” Goodwyn wrote.
“In essence, they are attempting to use the declaratory judgment statute to create rights they do not otherwise have.”
“None of the plaintiffs … alleged any rights that would be adversely affected by the outcome of this litigation,” wrote Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser. Justice William Mims, who asked tough questions during the oral arguments, dissented from the ruling.
“Because I believe the General Assembly anticipated that courts would enforce the Virginia Public Procurement Act against public bodies that fail to comply with its requirements, I must dissent,” Mims wrote.
Krueger said the ruling clears the way for negotiations on a construction contract to resume, and for the Piedmont Family YMCA to complete financing. So far the organization has raised about $9 million for the project, though some of that has been spent on design.
“It’s a good day for the Y,” Krueger said. In mid-December, the council granted the YMCA a one-year extension on the deadline to begin construction of the facility.
The news was not as well received by one of the plaintiffs.
“We are disappointed by the ruling but appreciate that the Virginia Supreme Court saw fit to hear the case,” said Greg Wells, ACAC’s CEO, in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We respect the decision and are ready to move forward.”