Buzz Kraft, who formerly operated Richmond Raft, is seeking $5.55 million in damages for loss of income and property rights stemming from a breach of contract. He claims the city sought to push him out of business because he prevailed against them in a separate lawsuit.
The complaint, filed in Richmond Circuit Court this month, is the latest development in a battle over commercial rafting rights within the James River Park that began several years ago.
The lawsuit claims that the city offered him less favorable terms when renewing his contract to conduct rafting tours along the James River as retribution. The new terms were so onerous that Kraft opted to shut down the business in 2007.
Neither Kraft nor his attorney Brent Jackson returned calls from BizSense.
Tammy Hawley, press secretary to the mayor, said she could not comment on pending litigation.
The dispute began in 2005, when Kraft filed a suit against the city for breach of contract. That original contract was signed in 2001 and leased commercial use of the river to his Richmond Raft Company for five years. Rent was free for the first year and then increased to $2,000 a year or 2 percent of gross receipts.
Although the contract was non-exclusive, there was a stipulation that other commercial vendors could not operate unless the launching and landing sites and the roads leading to them were maintained in a certain way by the city.
In Kraft’s eyes, these commercial uses included the SEAL Team training classes, Virginia Commonwealth University’s outdoor adventure program and even an inflatable tube trip organized as a fundraiser for the park itself. Because the rights-of-way were not maintained as outlined by the letter of the contract, Kraft filed suit.
Kraft won, and the judge issued a court order barring other commercial vendors from operating within the park. But the victory was short-lived.
By the time the trial concluded, Kraft’s contract was due to expire in a few months. According to the most recent lawsuit, Kraft met “extreme resistance” from the city regarding renewal of the lease.
After refusing the new terms offered by the city, Kraft ceased operations.
Kraft’s latest lawsuit claims that the renewal option they offered violated the original agreement. The original contract required the city to offer the company a five-year renewal option; the new lease offered only a one-year renewal option.
According to the lawsuit, the renewal offer “tacked on a rider clause with unreasonable and impractical restrictions on the operation of RRC’s rafting business. These additional restrictions engendered an onerous burden which renders the operation of RRC impossible and unprofitable.”
Such stipulations, which did not apply to other commercial users, included giving 30 days notice when reserving time on the river, obtaining prior approval for unscheduled landings and limiting the number of rafts allowed per day. The suit claims that the restrictions were retribution for Kraft’s previous legal actions against the city.
In 2007, the city changed the way it regulates commercial rafting trips on the river. The new permitting process charges operators $30 per trip, and users have four launch spots to choose from. The organization must only show proof of liability insurance to the permit office.
Since Richmond Raft Company shut down, other companies have filled the void, including Riverside Outfitters and River City Rafting.
Travis Dodge, co-owner of River City Rafting, said that three summers in they are getting close to paying off their initial business loans and hope to expand.
“We’ve been exceeding our targets,” Dodge said. “Up until the past week, we went out pretty much every day for a month.”
Dodge said his company has eight rafts. He admits it is a tough business that is greatly affected by the weather. Right now, he said, the water level is getting close to the point where it will be too low for rafting.
But despite the ups and downs, he said he loves it.
“I used to be a schoolteacher and I’d rather do this than make more money,” he said.
As for Kraft, who was previously his employer, Dodge said he is missing out.
“Buzz would have had it better if he stuck with it.”
Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]