To keep new high school opening on schedule, city heads to court

The city and Truist Bank, owner of this property at 3510 S. Main St., are at odds over the value of a small section needed to erect a stoplight and other road improvements at the main entrance to the future Rocktown High School. Photo by Bridget Manley.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

As construction on Rocktown High School continues, the City of Harrisonburg and Truist Bank are headed to court to settle a dispute over the value of property and easements needed to construct the intersection for the school’s main entrance.

City officials have decided to take legal action because any delay in the construction of the roadway leading into Rocktown High School could delay its scheduled Fall 2024 opening.

Truist Bank, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, owns the property at 3510 South Main Street. The building, originally a BB&T bank, is now rented to McGriff Insurance.

The city has offered the bank $108,900: $17,085 for the section of property in question, $20,963 for a permanent utility easement, $52,182 for temporary construction easements to make changes, and $18,662 to relocate the insurance company’s sign.

Truist, however, says that the city’s offer is too low.  And in a letter sent several weeks ago, the bank requested an amount that the city deemed “well outside the scope of reasonableness,” said City Attorney Chris Brown.

Citing ongoing negotiations, Brown declined to reveal how much Truist Bank requested for the land and easements.

At the June 27 city council meeting, Brown gave a presentation on the negotiations so far. Then, after a public hearing, council voted unanimously to move forward with “condemnation proceedings to acquire the fee simple interests and easements” – in layman’s terms, the space it needs to construct the intersection.

In a condemnation proceeding, a judge decides whether a government entity is providing appropriate compensation to a private landowner for property acquired through eminent domain or other means.

Representatives for Truist Bank confirmed to The Citizen that they are “in conversations with the city on this matter,” but declined to answer specific questions.

The property in question is at the intersection of South Main Street and East Kaylor Park Drive, which will be the main entrance to Rocktown High School. The city needs to install a stoplight at the intersection where traffic will exit the high school onto Route 11.

Under Virginia law, the city must pay the higher amount of two valuations: either the tax assessment of the property, or a value determined by an independent, licensed appraiser that the city must hire. The $108,900 the city has offered Truist is the appraised value.

The property the city needs to acquire for the intersection includes 1,139 square feet on the southwest corner of the parcel, and an additional thin sliver of land along Route 11. The larger portion will house the two stoplight columns at the intersection. The city also plans to move a power line several hundred feet back from the road to accommodate the stoplight.

Brown told The Citizen that as plans for the high school began to take shape in 2022, the public works department and city planners began working with adjacent landowners to acquire the property needed for roads to access the high school. It has worked with five landowners who owned a total of seven parcels affected by the construction of East Kaylor Park Drive. For each parcel, Brown said, the city only needed small amounts of land or easements – legal rights to use the property – to improve the road.

Because the city plans to add a median at the intersection with Route 11, the bank requested that the city install an additional exit from the parking lot onto East Kaylor Park Road, to allow customers access the light. The city agreed to that request, as well as one to relocate a sign for the insurance company back a few hundred feet.

City Council’s action at the last meeting authorized Brown and other city officials to pay the appraised total of $108,900 to the Rockingham County Circuit Court and to file a “certificate of take” that allows it to move forward with construction.

Brown said that condemnation proceedings are a last resort.

“We can’t hold up the project … the road improvements need to get started sometime this summer,” Brown said.

Construction on the road should begin in mid-July, according to Brown. The bank can take the funds the city will deposit with the court while continuing negotiations for additional money for the property.

While the city has limited ability to exceed an appraised value of a property when spending tax dollars, Brown and other officials are hopeful that they will still be able to negotiate with Truist Bank on the final amount. Brown noted that other than the issue of how much the property is worth, bank representatives have been “delightful” to work with.

At the meeting, Brown told council members that city officials believe the lot will be worth more money to the property owner once the improvements have been made. 

“It seems to me that it’s pretty critical that our schools don’t have delays,” councilman Dany Fleming said during the meeting. “This is obviously a safety issue.”

“It seems like we have been negotiating in good faith by offering that side street entrance,” councilwoman Laura Dent added.

The city’s action will mean that the new high school remains on schedule to open in 2024.

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