NEWS- Carriage ride: Jury smacks grocer's landlord for $100K

A bitter lease dispute was decided in Charlottesville Circuit Court Thursday, June 29, when a jury ordered the owners of Meadowbrook Shopping Center to pay Anderson Carriage Food House $100,000. Anderson had charged Meadowbrook with attempting to breach the lease that guarantees the fresh meat and fish market 20 years in its prime location at the corner of Barracks Road and Emmet Street.

It may appear to be a big win for a small family-run business with no plans to move, but the winners say the victory is bittersweet.

"It should have been $500,000," says Ted Anderson, who works in the family business owned by his parents, Ed and Jean Anderson. The younger Anderson says the award won't even cover the legal fees that mounted during the seven-year legal wrangle with their landlord, Meadowbrook Shopping Centre LLC.

"We won the battle but lost the war," says Anderson, expressing frustration that a judge tossed out charges of fraud and trespass against Meadowbrook owner Clara Belle Wheeler and her property manager, William Rice,  before the jury heard the case.

Among the allegations outlined in the Andersons' suit: Wheeler and Rice, of William S. Rice Real Estate, harassed the Andersons by making regular but unannounced "inspections" of the store, by writing letters to the health department and city complaining about the Andersons' business, and by pouring cement into the drains at the back of the building that once allowed the Andersons to hose out a rear kitchen area and several walk-in coolers. They say a health inspector was once summoned from his dinner table after-hours to document a supposed open sewage situation. There was none.

None of the multiple calls resulted in a violation,  Jean Anderson says, and the Anderson Carriage Food House passed its May 16 routine inspection, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Andersons also alleged that Wheeler and Rice had engaged in fraud against all the tenants of the shopping complex by padding Common Area Maintenance [CAM] charges by asking the various businesses to pay for such things as repainting vacant interiors and other improvements that the Andersons say should have been the landlord's responsibility.

One CAM charge that particularly enraged the Andersons: the shopping center charged tenants more than $2,500 to cover a court judgment that it lost. The Tavern, a venerable diner in the complex, had sued for and won reimbursement of plumbing repairs under the parking lot.

Another time, the Andersons say, landlord-ordered masons showed up to cover one of their store entrances with concrete blocks. The Andersons verbally warned them, posted no trespassing signs, but the masons returned after hours to finish the job.

However, the jury never heard about many of these imbroglios because substitute judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr.– who stepped in after Charlottesville circuit judges Edward Hogshire and Paul Peatross recused themselves– threw out the fraud and trespass charges, ruling that the case was a simple contract dispute.

Wheeler did not return the Hook's call, and Rice declined comment. However, Jim Neale, attorney for the shopping center, says his client did nothing wrong.

"This isn't a story of bad people doing bad things to each other," says Neale. "It's a commercial contract dispute that should have been settled around a table between business people."

However, the Andersons' attorney, Robert Yates, disputes the characterization. "There were attempts to settle it around a table," he says, "but they were unsuccessful."

The problems began in 1999, two years after the Andersons had merged their business– Anderson Seafood in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center– with The Carriage Food House in Meadowbrook.

The Andersons negotiated a lease with Meadowbrook's then-owner, Mary Wheeler, Clara Belle's mother, that guaranteed five years and allowed the Andersons three five-year renewals at their discretion. The Andersons had paid $75,000 for the rights to the Carriage Food House name so they could retain certain grandfathered elements, including a long-standing grocery sign, the jumbo-sized letters affixed before Charlottesville enacted stricter sign regulations.

For two years the business ran smoothly, the Andersons say, but trouble started in 1999, shortly after Mary Wheeler's death. They claim that CVS pharmacy expressed interest in building on the site and approached the Andersons with offers to buy out their lease. Jean Anderson says they might have considered moving, but the amount the drugstore offered didn't cover the the anticipated relocation cost plus the $250,000 they say they'd already spent on improvements.

A CVS spokesperson declined comment, and Neale says the drugstore never approached Clara Belle Wheeler or Rice with a proposal. The Andersons, however, say Wheeler was greedily pursuing the national pharmacy company– and that she began trying to displace the grocery.

The Andersons say they declined Wheeler's offer to take the old Meadowbrook Washette laundromat space. Located across the parking lot in a less visible corner, the old Washette was about one-eighth the size of the 8,500-square-foot grocery store. In late 1999, Wheeler sued to force the Andersons from the space.

"She said, 'I don't think like a woman from my heart,' Jean Anderson reports of Wheeler. "I think like a man, from up here,' pointing to her head."

The Andersons won that suit in 2002, and filed their countersuit the same year. Jean Anderson says the last several years have been difficult, "the worst experience of my life." And it may not be over yet, particularly if Wheeler chooses to petition the Virginia Supreme Court for an appeal.

Neale says his client still has cards to play. "No judgment's been entered yet," he says, "so we'll see what happens over the next few weeks."  

Back row: Ted, Lisa and Jean Anderson of Anderson's Carriage Food House with, from left in front, Ted Anderson's children, Ethan, Savannah, and Jesse