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Albemarle condo buildings destroyed after fire reignites

Stacks of waterlogged, smoke-damaged classic vinyl records lay in the parking lot near rescued paintings, books and belongings on Friday as homeowners in a twice-burned Albemarle County condominium complex salvaged what personal items they could.

Two adjoining buildings at the Villas at Southern Ridge were heavily damaged by two fires that started about eight hours apart and displaced residents of all 12 units in the buildings, which are joined by a common wall.

“I was winding down and watching a documentary for a class on geriatrics [medicine] and I smelled a little smoke,” said Anthony Wiggins, a University of Virginia medical school student, as he dried photos taken out of frames recovered from the remains of his home.

“My first reaction was that it was a remnant from the fire earlier in the day,” he said. “And then I remembered that previously I didn’t smell any smoke.”

Wiggins, whose top-floor unit was the farthest from the unit that hosted the earlier fire, decided to investigate.

“I saw puffs of smoke coming out of the ceiling when I looked out of the stairway window,” he recalled. “I grabbed some things and ran out and knocked on people’s doors so we could get everyone out.”

Within five minutes, Wiggins said, the flames burned through the roof. The roof that once rose over Wiggins’ unit is now on his floor.

“It does have a more open floor plan [now],” he grimly quipped. “Couch, bed, furniture, clothes — they’re all gone.”

Wiggins motioned toward his framed diploma from Harvard University now sitting in the trunk of his Toyota Corolla.

“This was hanging on the wall, but it wasn’t damaged at all,” he said. “That’s amazing.”

Although fire investigators have not determined an official cause of the fires, residents say they believe the building at 1213 Villa Lane was struck by lightning at about 5 p.m. Thursday as a strong storm blew through the area.

Fire burned in the attic of the building, and crews from the Charlottesville Fire Department and multiple Albemarle County fire companies put it out in about 45 minutes.

Crews stayed on the scene for hours to make sure hot spots were out and the fire was extinguished. Residents of 1213 Villa Lane were displaced by the flames, but those in the adjoining 1211 building remained.

Investigators from the county fire marshal’s office stayed on the scene until 12:30 a.m. An hour after they left, residents in the adjoining 1211 building smelled smoke. Fire officials said the fire was in full burn when they arrived on the scene.

“The first unit on scene found smoke and fire venting through the roof of the structure,” said Brian Wheeler, Charlottesville spokesman.

The fire not only damaged the six units in building 1211, it caused more damage to those in the already-stricken building 1213.

For Galen Maupin, the water poured on the first fire in the condo directly above his second-floor unit damaged his walls, but he was able to move his furniture to what he thought was relative safety.

“We didn’t have any fire damage, but there was water from the upstairs fire coming through the drywall and [firefighters] recommended that we move everything into the laundry room,” Maupin said. “With the second fire, the laundry room seemed to get the brunt of it. It’s all gone.”

Olivia Kitelinger recently bought her ground-floor condo in the 1213 building. Although no flames made it from the third floor down, the water and smoke did.

“There’s a lot of smoke damage and a lot of water,” she said, standing next to clothes and other items saved from the condo. “I literally just moved in, one month ago to the day. I’m not looking forward to moving back in [with parents].”

For Wiggins, the loss of all of his furniture meant little compared with getting out of the building alive and unhurt.

“Some of my possessions will have to be replaced. My clothes, my bed and my furniture are gone. But some important possessions made it through, my fiancée is safe and I’m standing here talking to you,” he said. “I didn’t lose a thing.”

UVa seeks public's input on future of parking, roads

Be it by Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, bus, stroll, pool or pedal, University of Virginia planners are looking for insight from commuters, visitors, vendors and employees on the future of transportation on and around Grounds.

A UVa steering committee wants to hear from anyone who travels through UVa’s medical or academic campuses. The committee is looking for ways to meet the parking and transportation needs for the university a decade from now.

The transportation plan has been updated twice in the past decade — in 2007 and 2011. The updates resulted in several changes at the university, including an agreement with the city of Charlottesville and Charlottesville Area Transit for a collaborative bus service, a bike share program on Grounds and inviting Zipcar onto school property for short mid-day trips taken by students and staff.

“It seems like the time is right for another 10-year look,” said Rebecca White, director of UVa’s Department of Parking and Transportation. “We know that current students seem to show a general delay in car ownership. We also know that student parking permits have dropped about 15 percent since the 2013-2014 school year.”

White said the decline in car ownership has resulted in some student parking spaces near Grounds being repurposed for other uses.

“At the Darden School of Business and the law school, we’ve repurposed a lot of parking spaces that were set aside for commuting students,” White said. “Students just weren’t buying the permits anymore.”

The cost of a student parking permit for 2018 varies depending on the length of the permit and parking lot to be used.

Lots farther from Grounds, including at University Hall, cost $252 for the year. Reserved spaces closer to Grounds cost $540 a year. Permits are also available on a monthly basis.

UVa employees pay the same rates as students for lots farther from Grounds and $588 a year for a reserved space closer to Grounds.

Learning how vehicle ownership and use have changed since the 2011 study could result in modification to existing facilities, changes in current development planning and new transportation options.

It also could define how — or if — future parking garages are built.

“We’re looking at the potential for a lot of change with self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing and other options that could impact needs for parking and infrastructure,” said Julia Monteith, senior land-use planner in UVa’s architect’s office.

“There are some schools of thought that floors in parking garages will not need to be more than 5 feet high to accommodate autonomous vehicles,” she said. “Others say the floors should be 15 feet high to allow them to be repurposed for other uses. Others say don’t even build them.”

Although the future is not known, Monteith said there are some positive forces working for the planners. One of those is an effort between Charlottesville, Albemarle County and UVa officials to work together on important issues such as development, economic growth and transportation.

The city has received grant money to study streetscape development on Emmet Street and to improve the streetscape along Fontaine Avenue where the roads meet with UVa Grounds.

The city, county, UVa and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission also are cooperating on regional planning.

Monteith and White said public input is important in determining the future of parking and road systems. That’s why the university is asking anyone who visits the school’s facilities to comment either at scheduled events or online.

“We’re going to ask people about specific modes of travel and issues they may have, and we also want some general comments,” White said. “We want to get as balanced of a view of the issues as we can.”

A 90-minute open comment session to discuss general issues is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Rotunda’s multi-purpose room in the southwest wing.

The UVa Health System will host a similar open house at the Health System Education Resource Center, Room B, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sept. 7.

A session to discuss issues surrounding both bicycling and walking on Grounds is scheduled for 2 to 3 p.m. Sept. 6 at Newcomb Hall, Room 481, followed by a transit focus group from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

At the Health System, a parking focus group will meet at the Education Resource Center, Room A, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sept. 6.

On Sept. 7, a close-in parking focus group session will be held at Newcomb Hall, Room 481, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., followed by a focus group meeting from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on intercept parking, where commuters park in a distant lot and then take another mode of transportation to their eventual destinations. An alternate transportation/multiple modes group will meet from 11 a.m. to noon at the same location.

People who cannot attend the sessions may offer advice and insight online until Sept. 14 at uva-transportation.com.

“We’re trying to hear from people in terms of what’s in their way and what it takes for them to carpool or bicycle or take a different form of transportation,” White said. “There is a lot of planning going on in the city, the county and at the university, and those plans affect transportation, just as transportation affects those plans.”

First-generation college students adjust to life at UVa

On Tuesday, Virginia Gibson woke up before sunrise and walked from her dorm on Observatory Hill to the University of Virginia’s gym. Later that morning, she edged her way into New Cabell Hall for her first class as a college student.

A longtime Charlottesville resident, Gibson grew up going to Cavalier football games. Her high school class toured the Grounds every year. But on several occasions Tuesday, she paused to take it all in: the first in her immediate family to graduate from high school and go to college — as a member of the Class of 2022.

“… I didn’t think I was good enough to get in [to UVa], and that’s what I thought about all the other schools I applied to, too,” Gibson said. “But I guess I was wrong.”

Gibson said she sometimes had to fight the negative expectations of her peers. She was partially raised by her Filipina grandmother, and said she struggled with English in her first few years of school. Classmates from middle-class families treated her differently when they found out her dad was a mason, she said. But family members always encouraged her to do well in school and go to college, and she said a main drive to finish a college degree will be to give back to them.

According to UVa’s Office of Institutional Assessment, Gibson’s class is the largest and most diverse ever. Approximately 3,840 first-year students started classes this week, though the number could shift if students drop out.

This year’s class includes 1,310 minority students, or 34.1 percent of the class.

352 students, or 9 percent of the class, are African-American, including those who identify as multiracial.

Eleven percent, or 424 students, are the first in their families to attend college. That number has increased steadily since 2013.

Andy Chambers, from Georgia, is also a first-year, first-generation student. He is a Jefferson Scholar; the program covers all tuition, room and board and fees for its students.

His first week in college was full of typical questions and problems of navigating a new environment, he said: finding textbooks, keeping track of assignments and making friends.

He’s enjoying Charlottesville so far, he said, and picked up a stack of flyers about different extracurriculars at an activities fair.

“I’m used to figuring things out on my own,” he said. “I’m just trying to balance all of these things and get out there and make sure I’m also managing 17 credit hours.”

Last spring, upon recommendation of the Deans Working Group, the university created 100 additional University Achievement Awards and Blue Ridge Scholarships, which support minority, first-generation, low-income and rural students. The scholarships went to students starting school this week.

Tuition prices increased slightly this academic year, but the university maintained its AccessUVa program, which meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for undergraduate students and caps loans for low-income in-state students at $1,000 annually.

Finances can be a major stressor, particularly for low-income and first-generation students. Gibson’s parents weren’t able to help her find the needed tax forms and financial documentation, and as recently as the week before classes started, her financial aid was up in the air. It wasn’t until Gibson marched her aunt and grandmother to the financial services office that she got the necessary clearances, she said.

“I was considering deferring a year; I was considering joining the Navy,” Gibson said. “It was really stressful.”

But now that she’s on Grounds, she’s looking forward to the experience.

“I’m used to taking care of myself and getting organized,” she said. “It’s been years of holding on and making sure everything is under control; now I get to take a breath and look around and say, I did it.”

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Albemarle School Board fracas raises questions on free speech

Following the chaotic end of a gathering outside of the Albemarle County School Board’s meeting Thursday to discuss adding a proposed ban of Confederate images to the division’s dress code, other free-speech issues have emerged: the rights of residents to protest and assemble outside of public meetings, and where those rights potentially end.

About 50 people assembled outside the public meeting; after a few minutes, their chants and speeches could be heard inside the meeting chambers. A few minutes later, a deputy chief of police began asking protesters to quiet down. When they did not, he then asked them to disperse. When they refused, he began arresting people. After six arrests were made inside and outside Lane Auditorium and police cleared the anteroom, several members of the public and media were initially refused re-entry to the meeting.

“During the initial altercations, it became fairly hectic,” Albemarle police Lt. Terry Walls said Friday. “Once things were stabilized and secured, we were able to place some people at the entrances in an attempt to keep people that had been banned from coming back in, because we had witnessed several people who we believe had left that were part of the problem and then tried to re-enter the building.”

A large group was asked to leave the antechamber by County Executive Jeff Richardson, Walls said, and some people tried to re-enter. The police didn’t want people who had been disruptive to return, Walls said. However, he also said that police at the entrance didn’t have a good way to know whom those people might be and could have inadvertently kept non-disruptive members of the public and media out.

Richardson said he was unable to comment when reached Friday. County Police Chief Ron Lantz declined to comment, citing the pending court cases of those arrested.

All six of the people who were arrested were charged with trespassing; two of the six also were charged with obstruction of justice.

There is precedent for keeping disruptive individuals out of public meetings and for shutting down protests that are interrupting meetings, several First Amendment scholars say — but it’s not clear if a whole group of people should be ordered out while the meeting continues. Similarly, public buildings are often the sites of protests, but common spaces in those buildings, like lobbies, are not always open to free-speech activities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The public generally has the right to observe public meetings — but not necessarily to participate — according to Clay Hansen, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, an Albemarle-based think tank that advocates for freedom of speech.

“And then if your participation becomes disruptive, you might lose your ability to participate in the meeting,” Hansen said. “Once you cross that line into disruptive comment, you also don’t get a second bite at the apple if you get removed.”

Still, according to Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a public body probably shouldn’t remove individuals for disruptive conduct, but then continue a meeting while keeping out a whole group of people.

“While there is some precedent for removing disruptive individuals, I don’t think it is proper to keep out certain segments of the population,” Rhyne wrote in an email Thursday evening. “Otherwise, it’s not a meeting open to ‘the public’ under [the Freedom of Information Act].”

In a statement Thursday evening and in a letter to the editor published in Friday’s Daily Progress, School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff indicated that she viewed the wearing of Confederate symbols as hurtful but protected speech, and that ongoing disruptions of public meetings would be met with requests to leave and, potentially, arrests.

The group that organized the protest, the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, released a statement Friday saying the protest was merely an effort to be heard after the group felt the board remained unresponsive to requests to amend the county schools’ dress code to include a ban on Confederate images.

“Because the board shut down our scheduled 8/23 opportunity, we were determined to be heard on 8/30,” the group wrote, referencing a previous meeting that ended after one public comment. “When the board tried to silence our voices yet again by removing public comment from the agenda, we called a community gathering for the same time as the board meeting. We refused to muzzle ourselves, and then the board ordered the police to either intimidate us into silence or arrest us. We did not back down.”

The board has said it plans to continue working on its non-discrimination policies and hopes to finalize a new policy by the end of the year.