Billboard lawsuit claims county is playing favorites

McGeorge's Rolling Hill RV dealership sits just off I-95. (photo by Michael Schwartz)

McGeorge’s Rolling Hill RV dealership sits just off I-95. (photo by Michael Schwartz)

A battle over a billboard and its potentially lucrative ad revenue has pitted a local RV dealer against Hanover County.

Ed McGeorge, whose company EMAC LLC owns more than 23 acres at his McGeorge’s Rolling Hills RV Supercenter near Ashland, is suing the county and its board of supervisors for potential damages of nearly $7 million.

He claims the county discriminated against his business by denying the renewal of a permit that would allow him to build a large digital billboard on his property, a decision his suit claims will cost him millions in potential advertising revenue.

McGeorge claims in his June 17 suit that the county instead favored Craig Realty Group, the California developer that plans to build the long-awaited 375,000-square-foot outlet mall, by giving Craig Realty the rights to build the sign and reap the benefits.

“The County will bend over backwards to accede to almost any demand that Craig Realty makes in order to make sure Craig Realty constructs the Outlets at Richmond,” the suit reads.

The issue is rooted in a 2012 county approval of conditional use permits to allow the construction of two large LED signs to advertise the proposed outlets and nearby attractions to drivers on Interstate 95. One is to be built on Craig Realty Group property just north of the new Harley-Davidson store at Northlake, a 400-acre planned industrial, retail and office development between Route 1 and I-95. The other would sit farther south on land that belongs to McGeorge near his RV dealership.

The billboard McGeorge had planned for his land could have brought in $450,000 annually in ad revenue, the suit claims. The suit also says that since receiving the initial permit, McGeorge enlisted lawyers to draft lease and advertising agreements and met with billboard companies to draw up plans to build the sign.

Neither billboard can go up until the mall is finished.

outletssign

Craig Realty’s planned Outlets at Richmond project would become a linchpin for surrounding development in Hanover County and a major tourism driver.

Without any major construction progress on the outlets, the county has had to renew the permits each year since. It did so without any changes in 2013. But in May the board of supervisors renewed Craig Realty’s billboard permit but denied McGeorge an extension for a sign on his land.

McGeorge says the board’s decision improperly favored Craig Realty.

“As the Board openly and expressly admitted, the Board wants Craig Realty to enjoy the profits of the sign – Not EMAC,” the suit reads. “Such a motive is unlawful and exceeds the scope of the Board’s authority.”

The suit asks for an order to extend McGeorge’s conditional use permit. If the permit is still denied, McGeorge’s suit asks for an award of $6.9 million.

Sterling Rives, county attorney for Hanover, calls McGeorge’s claims baseless and argues that the previously approved conditional use permit the county granted to allow a sign on the RV dealer’s property was invalid from the start.

Craig Realty has attempted over the past two years to buy the McGeorge-owned land on which it hopes to construct one of the two signs, but the sides have not reached an agreement.

Because there has never been a contract in place to sell the land, Rives argues McGeorge’s conditional use permit was invalid from the time it was issued in 2012.

The county also claims Craig Realty can better operate a sign for its own outlet mall and asks the court to throw out McGeorge’s suit.

“This is simply a zoning case,” Rives said. “EMAC is challenging the expiration of a sign permit, all of the implications that there is a conspiracy and the allegations on constitutional violations and millions of dollars in damage are without merit.”

No timetable has been set for take the case to trial.

Meanwhile, Craig Realty has applied for a conditional use permit for a sign at a third location, on land the developer owns at Northlake. Hanover County code will only allow two signs in the Northlake area, so a second Craig Realty sign would prevent McGeorge from building his own.

The planning commission recommended approval of Craig Realty’s latest conditional use permit on June 19. That request will still need approval from the county’s board of supervisors and is scheduled to be heard at its next meeting on July 23.

EMAC is represented by LeClairRyan attorneys Vernon Inge, William Shewmake and Corey Booker.

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