Foxfield lawsuit: Plaintiffs say there’s no finish line in sight

The plaintiffs’ suit seeks a declaratory judgment saying the will of the property owner mandates the Foxfield Races site must continue to operate as a horse racing facility. Photo by Robert Llewellyn The plaintiffs’ suit seeks a declaratory judgment saying the will of the property owner mandates the Foxfield Races site must continue to operate as a horse racing facility. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

Garth Road neighbors and horse racing aficionados have filed a lawsuit against the Foxfield Racing Association to affirm that selling any of its acreage would be illegal. The catch? It wasn’t listed for sale.

“There has been a lot of discussion in the community about the future of the land and a lot of speculation, as one might expect, when there is a prominent property like this,” says Ashley Taylor, the Richmond-based Troutman Sanders attorney representing the eight plaintiffs.

The suit reads, “This case arises from defendants’ decision to sell the approximately 137 acres of land on which the Foxfield Races have been run for decades.” Such a sale would mean an end to the Foxfield Races, which is unlawful because the will of the late Mariann S. de Tejeda mandates the continued operation of the races and use of the land for that purpose, contends the suit.

Plaintiffs John Birdsall, Harry Burn, Reynolds Cowles, Landon and Kiwi Hilliard, John G. and Dudley Macfarlane III and Jack Sanford Jr. either declined to comment or could not be reached. But in the suit, they noted they are beneficiaries of the land and are seeking a declaratory judgment that the defendants—the Foxfield Racing Association and its owner, Winchester resident Thomas J. Dick, both trustees—must hold the property in trust for the purposes de Tejeda intended.

Their attorney says there has been overwhelming community interest in helping to keep the property the home of the Foxfield Races. “This is not a situation where these folks aren’t ready to roll up their sleeves,” says Taylor. “They want to participate in maintaining the property.”

Defense attorney James Summers declined to comment on the pending litigation, but C-VILLE’s legal expert Dave Heilberg discusses challenges the defendants and plaintiffs could face.

For the defense, a declaratory judgment is harder to defend, he says. But Virginia’s Uniform Trust Code that went into effect in 2006 was created to provide a greater certainty to trustees as to when claims could be brought against them, often making it more difficult for a plaintiff’s claims to be validated.

“It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a statute of limitations that applies,” he says. “Especially because the beneficiaries weren’t exactly known at the time the trust was created in the ’70s.”

The court will decide if the claims are from valid beneficiaries. “[Foxfield] was kind of broadly intended for everyone in Albemarle County. The neighbors don’t have to be beneficiaries,” he says. Heilberg could see the neighbors taking a position on the other side of the fence just as easily.

“It’s actually a little surprising,” he says. “The neighbors would rather have to worry about the horse races twice a year than whatever would go in there if they sell the property.”

The biannual Foxfield races are known to draw massive crowds, often filled with heavily intoxicated college students in big, floppy hats and pastel khakis. Spring race arrests were up in 2016. Of the 20 arrests, 15 were alcohol related, and 17 people were taken to jail. In spring 2015, there were seven arrests.

Additionally, Heilberg says a judge would be more likely to rule that a cemetery is in perpetuity versus a horse racing track. “I don’t know if using that particular property for horse races is going to be considered enough of a purpose to survive,” he says.

Jim Bonner, an associate broker with Roy Wheeler Realty and owner of Luxury Charlottesville International & The Land Office, says plenty of people would be vying for the deed to that desirable chunk of land on Garth Road, but it would come with a hefty price tag. “Let’s call it several million dollars, for sure, he says.

A court date has not been set yet.

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