At the edge of a grassy 30-acre field in Leesburg, Va., a solid wooden sign marks the location of the future Cornerstone Chapel building. The plans are completed, and funding is well on its way. There's only one problem-the church cannot build on its own property.
Cornerstone Chapel of Leesburg announced during its Jan. 15 service that the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear its case after a neighboring landowner sued the church and the town over property negotiations.
The case is unprecedented in the Commonwealth of Virginia and could affect development projects across the state.
"We're very thankful that the court sees a need to take this case," said Gary Hamrick, senior pastor of Cornerstone Chapel.
Long Lane Associates, owner of a neighboring five acres, sued Cornerstone and the town in May 2010 because of an agreement, called a proffer, made with the previous property owner in the early 1990s.
Landowners voluntarily agree to make proffers when a large lot is rezoned. Designed to mitigate the effects of rezoning, proffers traditionally require the various owners of a lot to reach a negotiation on development plans.
The company argues that it built its required section of Tolbert Lane years ago and it relied on the promise that the road would eventually be completed. Tolbert Lane now ends at church property. Also, the company has argued that the church expansion (a proposal, welcomed in Leesburg town council, that includes a large auditorium, classrooms, a cafe, childcare facility, and more parking) would be incompatible with the nearby businesses.
Extending Tolbert Lane, however, would "completely bisect the property," Hamrick said. Since the road would effectively prevent church construction, the church could not negotiate.
The Loudoun County Circuit Court heard the case in May 2011. Visiting judge J. Hal Brown ruled that the proffers should stand the way they were written-meaning, Long Lane still had the rights to demand that Cornerstone build the road.
"He said he doesn't know much about land use law, and that's what the case is about," said Rob Showers, Cornerstone's attorney.
However, according to Hamrick, Brown said that he made this decision so Cornerstone could appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.
"We felt like he, as a visiting judge, did not feel comfortable" making a decision that would set such a significant precedent, Hamrick said.
The case, expected to go to trial in late spring or early summer, could have broad-ranging effects.
"If we were to lose this, it would completely crush many development projects throughout the state," Hamrick said.
Several Virginia developers face a similar situation to Cornerstone. Proffers signed well before a developer buys a property can dictate how new landowners must build there.
Showers believes this is an important case for the Supreme Court to take on. "You can't have vested rights in a property that is not yours," he said.
Gifford R. Hampshire, attorney for Long Lane Associates, said it is common practice for local governments to require that all lot owners consent to a previously-agreed upon proffer. "I don't think the implications are significant," Hampshire said.
According to Hamrick, developers across Virginia have halted construction projects to await the case's outcome.
Cornerstone Chapel members also await their new building. The church is growing out of the converted shopping mall in which it has met since 1997. The church currently packs in three Sunday morning and one Saturday evening service.
Philip Latshaw, a Patrick Henry College freshman who attends the church, notices the church is frequently crowded on Sunday mornings.
"It's really important, how significant [the case] has become to go all the way to the Supreme Court," Latshaw said.
No matter what happens later this year, Pastor Hamrick feels assured about the outcome of the case. "I have a peace about it," he said. "I just want the Lord's will to be done."