Greenway holdout Walker foundry ceases production, land up for sale, but lawsuit against Roanoke to continue

Greenway holdout Walker foundry ceases production, land up for sale, but lawsuit against Roanoke to continue

By Matt Chittum  |  The Roanoke Times

Walker Machine & Foundry has withdrawn its lawsuit in state court against Roanoke over using its land for a greenway, but intends to sue the city in federal court instead.

Meanwhile, the company is no longer making castings, has sold off or scrapped equipment and has put the factory and land up for sale.

Walker blames the city’s threat of using eminent domain to take five of the foundry’s 16 acres in the Norwich neighborhood for creating an air of uncertainty around the business that drove customers away and ruined the business.

Though the company is down to just a few employees, it still exists and anticipates continuing its fight with the city in U.S. District Court. Walker’s Norfolk-based attorney, Joe Sherman, believes that’s the proper venue for the case.

And thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came three days after Walker sued the city in Roanoke Circuit Court, the company can now take its case to federal court.

“Given that they have lost everything, it makes sense to give it the time and attention it deserves,” he said.

“We were surprised with the motion for nonsuit,” Roanoke City Attorney Dan Callaghan said, “and we’ll deal with the next issue when it comes up.”

According to recent court filings by Walker, the 100-year-old company ceased manufacturing metal castings in May, and in August told city officials it needed to sell its land and factory.

Since then the company has sold off special equipment and sold its “book of business” — or customer base — to another company, the filings say. Other equipment was scrapped.

The land and 106,000-square-foot factory are now listed with commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield|Thalhimer for $4 million.

Walker and the city had been at odds since 2015 over the city’s desire to extend the popular Roanoke River Greenway west from Bridge Street in Norwich across Walker’s riverside land.

The company opposed the plan because leaders believed putting a linear park immediately adjacent to its plant would imperil its air quality permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, without which it can’t operate.

The Roanoke City Council authorized use of eminent domain — a government’s power to take private land for public purposes, while paying the owner a price determined by a court — to push the greenway through, but the city never exercised that authority.

Over the last year, relations between the two sides thawed and they began discussing a settlement. Walker President Glenn Muzzy said the two sides were making progress. Documents shared by Sherman showed that in March the two sides were about $1 million apart on a price for the land.

But on June 18, Walker filed its lawsuit against the city. Sherman said that was necessary to preserve its chance to sue because the statute of limitations was about to expire, but the company hoped to continue to negotiate.

Walker’s central claim was that the city’s threat amounted to an “inverse condemnation” — a claim that the city in effect took the land because its threat of taking it devalued it.

Instead, negotiations ceased and the parties went to court, but Walker’s lawsuit did not fare well.

In August, Roanoke Circuit Judge David Carson tossed out four of Walker’s six claims.

On Oct. 22, Sherman filed an amended complaint in the case that included a thousand pages of exhibits and spelled out Walker’s declining business from $330,000 in sales to 177 customers in 2015 to about half that amount to 140 customers in 2018.

Among the exhibits is an email from an executive with Walker client Kerotest Manufacturing Corp. asking Muzzy if the foundry will be put out of business and if so, how much notice customers will get.

The lawsuit also claims a foundry company from the western U.S. considered buying the Walker plant but decided against it because of concern about the greenway project.

Sherman said the lawsuit should have been filed in federal court from the beginning, but under a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Walker was required to exhaust state-level remedies first.

That changed, however, with a Supreme Court case called Knick v. Township of Scott. In its June 21 opinion the court overturned the previous ruling and allowed claims to be filed first in federal court under the Fifth Amendment.

Walker Machine & Foundry sought to nonsuit the case in state court Nov. 7 and the motion was granted Wednesday.

It’s unclear what would happen with the proposed greenway if the foundry property is sold.

But marketing materials for the property lay out how the site could be redeveloped for a nonindustrial use.

The drawings to show possibilities for the site show a canoe launch, a fishing trail, a string of picnic tables and the completed Roanoke River Greenway.

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