There was nothing to suggest disquiet on a crisp spring morning at Oatlands Historic House and Gardens in Leesburg late last month. Birds chirped and a light breeze fluttered through the handsome trees lining the long gravel driveway leading to the mansion on this property, a national historic landmark that dates back almost 220 years.
But the bucolic tranquility masked a simmering battle over money and vision that boiled over in March when Oatlands Inc., the private nonprofit organization that operates the 400-acre site, filed a lawsuit against the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the property and its endowment of about $7.8 million.
Each side in the partnership — or co-stewardship — accuses the other of not meeting its obligations or responsibilities when it comes to maintaining and preserving the property. Instead of seeing eye to eye, they’re going toe to toe with charges and countercharges about what is or isn’t being done to preserve Oatlands and how to pay for costly repairs, including fixing a leaky roof and a rotting balustrade.
Caleb Schutz, who was named chief executive of Oatlands Inc. in 2018, said his group wanted the suit to settle whether the nonprofits charged with operating and maintaining historic sites such as Oatlands in partnership with the National Trust have autonomy to make decisions over the use of their endowment funds and to make deals to ensure the venture is financially viable.
Schutz said the National Trust has offered little in the way of guidance and stepped on efforts to refurbish the site and finance it properly. “I have never been asked by the Trust, ‘How can we help you get things done?’” Schutz said recently in an interview at Oatlands. “Their whole orientation is defensive. It’s, ‘We don’t have to give you anything.’”
In its 125-page lawsuit, which seeks about $3.7 million in damages, Oatlands Inc. says the National Trust has breached its contract and “has strangled the resources available to Oatlands.” It also accused the National Trust of vetoing repair proposals, undermining fundraising efforts and blocking Oatlands from entering a conservation easement that would provide a tax benefit. As a result, Oatlands Inc. said it has had to “deplete its reserves in order to attempt to provide necessary maintenance to the property, which has pushed Oatlands to the brink of insolvency.”
The annual operating budget for Oatlands is just over $1 million, Schutz said. It receives about $346,000 per year from the National Trust endowment. The rest is supposed to be paid for through a combination of visitor fees, fundraising and events.
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