A judge decided last week that certain residents who’ve sued the local government for approving high school stadium lights, despite an alleged promise not to, will get their day in court.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne has been considering whether a purported agreement between the government and property owners in the 1960s not to install permanent stadium lights at T.C. Williams High School remains binding today. Several property owners, though most not the original owners with whom the agreement would’ve been made, think it does. They said the agreement — what they call the “no lights promise” — constituted an enforceable contract and wanted their case to go to trial.
The City Council and School Board disagreed, saying the agreement was a legislative decision, subject to change by a future government, and didn’t contain the necessary elements of a contract. Namely, no written document from the 1960s outlines the original terms. Furthermore, the governing bodies asserted that, even if the original no lights promise did constitute a contract, the current owners wouldn’t be party to it.
Horne overruled the City Council and School Board’s arguments for dismissal in a ruling issued on Wednesday, April 17, after about a month of deliberation. The case, along with some others that are related, will go to trial at an as-of-yet undecided date, but probably no earlier than this fall.
In particular, the resident plaintiffs pointed to a 2003 Development Special Use Permit (DSUP) for the construction of a new high school facility. They asserted the development approval reaffirmed the original agreement and created a new contractual commitment. According to the DSUP: “There is concern among neighbors that the new school will be built with increased lighting levels, and specifically about the potential for night athletic events at the stadium. The schools have agreed that there will be no permanent lighting installed at the stadium behind the schools, or on any of the athletic fields on the site, and a condition is included in staff’s recommendation reflecting that agreement.”
Of the DSUP, Horne opined: “while the [City Council and School Board] correctly observe that the legislative decision to grant a special use permit and codify those restrictions in the permit does not give either party a property interest, the [residents’] pleadings establish a contract claim independent of the permitting process.”
“The alleged lighting agreement is definite in its terms in that it unequivocally provides that the School Board and City will not build permanent lights at T.C. Williams,” he added.
As to the lack of a written contract from the 1960s, Horne cited Virginia’s contract law, which says: “The consideration [of a promise, contract, agreement, etc.] need not be set forth or expressed in the writing, and it may be proved … by extrinsic evidence.”
A “memorandum wholly untechnical in form may be sufficient,” he said, citing 1948 precedent.
As to whether current owners are party to an original contract, Horne concluded “they have standing either as members of third-party beneficiary class or direct beneficiaries.”