Nearly unanimous: Details of the Supreme Court’s YMCA decision

An architect's drawing of the planned YMCA in McIntire Park. Image courtesy of YMCA. An architect’s drawing of the planned YMCA in McIntire Park. Image courtesy of YMCA.

The Virginia Supreme Court last week struck down a lawsuit brought by two local gyms challenging the deal between the Piedmont YMCA and the city and county to build a new $14.5 million facility in McIntire Park. The decision means the more than 4-year-old plans for the new Y can now move forward, and according to the attorney who argued the case for the city, it could have lasting impacts on the scope of local governments’ power in Virginia.

“We’re ecstatic,” said YMCA CEO Denny Blank. “This is the best possible ruling that could have come down.”

ACAC and Gold’s Gym had together argued that because the YMCA hammered out a deal in 2008 with the city and county to provide fitness memberships to residents at discounted rates in return for financial support—including a generous lease agreement—the exchange amounted to a procurement of services, and thus should have been subject to an open bidding process.

City and county attorneys defended the agreement before the Supreme Court last June after an appeal of the Circuit Court ruling kicked the case upstairs, and a ruling was expected in early November. The delay—and some of the questions lobbed from the bench back in June—had Blank and others worried. “We all went out with our tails between our legs thinking ‘We’ve lost this thing,’” Blank said.

Deputy City Attorney Allyson Manson-Davies said a lot of speculation followed about which way the court would go, but ultimately, the ruling was 6-1. Now everyone’s scrutinizing the decision to better understand its impacts.

By throwing out the case on jurisdictional grounds, Manson-Davies said, the court underscored the legislative authority municipalities have to lease land and appropriate funds.

“In Virginia, you have to have a cause of action—some reason why you’re bringing suit,” she explained. The coalition of for-profit gyms was attempting to weigh in as a third party on a deal they didn’t like, she said, but the majority stated that wasn’t enough to create new rights for the plaintiffs. The justices didn’t touch the issue of whether Charlottesville and Albemarle broke the law by not going out to bid on the project, she said, because they decided that “they didn’t have grounds to hear that kind of case.”

ACAC spokeswoman Christine Thalwitz said the company was disappointed in the ruling, but was glad it got to argue the case. “The Court has rendered its decision, and we respect that decision,” she said in an e-mail. “We’re looking forward to moving ahead now.”

So is the YMCA. As the city approved the extension of the organization’s ground lease last month, at least one obstacle is out of the way. But Blank said the four-year holdup meant the loss of a construction bid, which cost the YMCA an estimated $500,000, he said.

“It’s unfair what this delay has cost the city and county and the residents of this community in terms of money and time and aggravation,” Blank said.