Town attorney representing Luter in Pierceville sale
Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, October 13, 2020
The lawyer representing former Smithfield Foods chairman Joseph W. Luter III in his efforts to buy the historic Pierceville farm is also representing the Town of Smithfield in a lawsuit it is facing concerning the same property.
Pierceville’s owner, Mary Delk Crocker, filed the lawsuit in August 2019, which names each of the seven Smithfield Town Council members serving in 2019 as defendants, plus Luter’s attorney, William H. Riddick III, in his capacity as the town’s solicitor.
The suit seeks to overturn the town’s denial of her request to demolish the dilapidated 1730s-era Dutch Colonial house — a property the town argues is a landmark structure located within Smithfield’s historic district, and therefore, should be protected from demolition.
According to court records, a hearing on the matter was held in the city of Suffolk’s courthouse on June 16, 2020, and the case is still pending. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Riddick is now in the position of having to argue the town’s position in court, while at the same time representing Luter, who, like Crocker, wants to tear Pierceville down.
According to Riddick, oral arguments concluded at the June 16 hearing, and all that’s left is for the judge to rule either in the town’s favor or in Crocker’s. He’s only been representing Luter since late September.
“All he’s asked me to do is close on the real estate,” Riddick said. “I told him upfront I’m the town attorney.”
A conflict could potentially arise, however, if Smithfield’s Town Council or Crocker chooses to appeal the ruling. According to William & Mary Law Professor Mason E. Lowe, whom The Smithfield Times contacted for an expert opinion on legal ethics, Virginia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7 governs conflicts of interest as they pertain to whom lawyers can simultaneously represent.
This rule, he explained, applies when there is a “significant risk that the representation of one client will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client.”
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean the lawyer is doing anything wrong,” Lowe said. “The rule allows for a lawyer to represent a client even if there is a conflict as long as (1) the lawyer reasonably believes he can provide competent representation to each client; (2) the representation isn’t prohibited by law; (3) the two clients aren’t suing each other; and (4) the lawyer gets written informed consent.”
“I absolutely told the mayor and town manager that I would be helping [Luter] acquire the real estate,” Riddick said. “I would not and cannot represent him in any matters regarding zoning or permits. Mr. Luter understands that completely.”
Riddick is also representing Luter in his efforts to acquire the former Little’s Supermarket. That sale closed Oct. 5, Riddick said, but the Pierceville sale is being held up by the need for a title search.
“I have no information what Mr. Luter wants to do with either property,” Riddick said.
In the mean time, Crocker is still Pierceville’s legal owner.
“Ms. Crocker or anyone is entitled to raze the structure … they just have to follow the correct procedure,” Riddick said. The question before the court right now, he said, is “did they do that?”
The town’s historic preservation ordinance requires property owners who wish to raze a historic landmark first try to sell it at a price near its fair market value to someone who gives assurance that he or she is willing to preserve and restore it. If no contract is executed for the sale of said landmark within a set timeframe, the owner can then apply to the Town Council for permission to raze the structure.
In 2014, Crocker had put Pierceville, its outbuildings and 58 acres up for sale at an asking price of $2 million, though its current tax-assessed value, according to Isle of Wight County’s online property map, is $89,300 — including the house and a legal acreage of 35.96. Crocker, at one point, also offered to donate the house and half an acre to the town — an offer Smithfield rejected.
Crocker’s current lawsuit is the second she’s filed against the town in the past four years concerning Pierceville. In 2016, she sued Smithfield over a notice the town sent to her in 2009 claiming Pierceville’s dilapidated condition violated the town’s historic preservation ordinance. She won the suit in April 2019 when Judge Carl E. Eason Jr. ruled Smithfield couldn’t use its historic ordinance to compel her to fix up her home.
As a result, the provision of the town’s ordinance giving Smithfield the option of using its own resources to repair the home and then placing a lien on the property that its next buyer would need to reimburse “has been deemed unenforceable by the courts,” Riddick said, but “the town still retains the right for approval of improvements and additions, any kind of changes to structures in the historic district.”
Smithfield has since started pursuing other options to compel repairs, Riddick said, such as negotiating with Isle of Wight County for the authority to enforce the county’s building code at the town level.
Editor’s note: A previously published version of this story had incorrectly listed William Riddick as a named defendant in the Pierceville lawsuit.