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The Daily Progress - In Chambers

In Chambers

Welcome to Oct. 8!

It's been a while since we've talked, my bad. But also, it's my newsletter so I can do what I want.

Thank goodness it's finally turning to fall and the scorching heat has left us alone.

It's been a pretty busy time and this is a jam-packed edition. Stay tuned to the end for the start of hockey season and some wild stories of government corruption around the state.


Charlottesville to appeal decision in Confederate statues suit

In Chambers

DAILY PROGRESS FILEThe statue of Robert E. Lee is one of two memorials to Confederate generals in downtown Charlottesville.

The city of Charlottesville plans to appeal its defeat in a lawsuit challenging the City Council’s decision to remove two downtown Confederate monuments.

At the end of its meeting late Monday night, the council authorized the City Attorney’s Office to appeal the lawsuit once a final ruling comes down.

The lawsuit has sat idle in Charlottesville Circuit Court since mid-September, but a hearing is scheduled for next week.

The case started in 2017 after the council voted to remove a downtown statue of Robert E. Lee and then later added the statue of fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

A group of area residents filed a lawsuit in March 2017 claiming that the vote violated state code.

Judge Richard Moore ruled last month that the monuments do not send a racially discriminatory message and issued a permanent injunction preventing their removal.

The plaintiffs are seeking more than $600,000 in attorneys’ fees and Moore is considering the request. It is the only outstanding issue in the case.

A hearing in the suit is scheduled for Oct. 15.


Democrats facing pressure over support for independent Bellamy Brown

In Chambers

DAILY PROGRESS FILEBellamy Brown is running as an independent for a seat on the Charlottesville City Council. He said “several Democrats” have been working behind the scenes on his behalf.

Charlottesville Democrats who support independent City Council candidate Bellamy Brown or any other unaffiliated candidates could face expulsion from the local party committee under its bylaws.

Along with Democrats Sena Magill, Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook and independents John Hall and Paul Long, Brown is running for one of three open seats on the panel in November’s election.

Brown received a roundabout donation from sitting Democratic Councilor Mike Signer, which skirts the lines of what the party allows. Signer donated through a political action committee he established in 2011.

The city Democratic committee is made up of 100 precinct representatives and alternates, and former elected members who are given the status of ex-officio.

According to the committee’s bylaws, members “must not intend to support any candidate opposed to a Democratic nominee in the next ensuing general election.” The state party’s bylaws say Democrats must not “publicly support, endorse, or assist” any candidate outside of the party.

The city committee’s bylaws allow a majority of the committee to expel any member who is “found guilty” of publicly supporting any candidate who is running against a Democratic nominee.

The husband of Democratic Councilor Heather Hill also contributed to Brown. Hill declined to comment on any specific candidate, but did discuss partisanship in local elections and said party affiliation should be “of little concern.”

Hinton said, “We have had discussions with members and nonmembers about the bylaws.” When asked if those discussions had occurred with Signer or Hill, Hinton paused and then said, “I’ll let you talk to them about that.”

Brown has received quiet support from “several Democrats,” he said, but he declined to name them.

“There have been Democrats that have offered to support me behind the scenes, but publicly, because of the complications with their party, they haven’t been able to do so,” he said. “I think that the sense is that the party itself hasn’t necessarily gone in the direction that they’d like to see. … I’ve given them the professional courtesy of not getting them in trouble [with the party].”

Brown and other unaffiliated candidates also face additional hurdles because Virginia election law is crafted in a way that gives a natural edge to the established political parties through ballot order.

Democrats have held a stranglehold on politics in Charlottesville for decades. Walker, elected in 2017, was the first candidate running outside a party to win a seat in more than 70 years, and no Republicans have been on the City Council since Rob Schilling took his seat on the panel in 2006.


Woman suing city for $5 million after falling over 'bulge of cement'

In Chambers

A Charlottesville woman is suing the city for more than $5 million in damages after she fell over a “bulge of cement.”

In her complaint, Lakeisha Byers wrote that on Dec. 19, 2016, she was walking in the area of what was then called Lee Park toward Market Street. She said she was using a “fixed ankle walker” required after she tore a ligament in her foot the previous March.

Byers wrote that she was crossing Market Street toward the Charlottesville Area Transit bus stop when she hit uneven cement, falling on her left side at the bus stop.

“This Accidental Fall was emotionally disturbing, scary, painful, frightening, embarrassing,” she wrote.

Byers claims the city is negligent by not placing any warning signs about the uneven pavement.

Statistics aren’t readily available on the number of such slip-and-fall incidents that result in lawsuits seeking compensation for more than just payment for medical expenses. Such medical claims can usually be negotiated directly with the city’s insurance provider, rather than through a lawsuit.

Byers, however, isn’t the only person with pending litigation against Charlottesville for injuries from a fall. Check out the story for details on another such lawsuit against the city.


Charlottesville calls Rachel's Haven petition 'arbitrary and capricious' 

In Chambers

COURTESY JJM DESIGNIn August, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone 750 Hinton Ave. from residential to neighborhood commercial so Hinton Avenue Methodist Church could create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.

The city of Charlottesville pulled no punches in its response to a petition to overturn a rezoning for an apartment complex that would include housing for people with disabilities.

The city's response calls the petition “arbitrary and capricious."

On Aug. 5, the City Council unanimously voted to rezone 750 Hinton Ave. from residential to neighborhood commercial so Hinton Avenue Methodist Church could create a 15-unit apartment building known as Rachel’s Haven.

The city’s response to the petition refutes its arguments point-by-point, citing numerous examples of case law and legal precedent.

Thirty-one people are signed onto the petition, which is similar to a lawsuit, but does not seek monetary compensation. It originally contained 30 names but, since then, seven have been removed and eight have been added.

Opponents of the rezoning have reiterated that they support the church’s mission but say they are concerned with ramifications from a commercial zoning.

In their petition, which names the City Council and councilors individually, the group of mostly neighbors alleges that the city didn’t properly notify the community of public hearings or changes to the proposal and canceled and resched- uled hearings with little notice.

The petitioners also say the rezoning is improper because it violates state law and the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and because some city officialshave said the commercial zoning isn’t appropriate. They also argue that two Planning Commission members should not have voted on the project.

The city says the petition doesn’t meet legal standards because it isn’t signed and the petitioners don’t state where they live to establish that they are affected by the change.

One sticking point in the petition is the May 14 Planning Commission meeting agenda. The proposal was slated for that day, but removed the day before. Petitioners say it put “undue expectations” on residents to change their schedules for the hearings.

“No provision of the Code of Virginia establishes a timeframe to cancel a public hearing for a land use matter,” the city’s response says.

The city also targets a “generalized statement” that “adjacent and across-the-street residents” didn’t receive required written notices, saying that the claim doesn’t actually name anyone who wasn’t notified. The response says the petition also would have to prove that someone who didn’t receive notice didn’t participate in public hearings on the rezoning.

The city provided a notarized letter signed when a staff member mailed 121 notices to property owners.

The petition also cites violations of the city’s land-use plans and Comprehensive Plan, which is a guiding document and not legally binding — a point the city hammers home.

“A Comprehensive Plan … does not carry the authority of a zoning ordinance,” the city’s response says. “The Comprehensive Plan is a set of ‘guidelines and not requirements’ which a legislative body is free to [either] apply or follow another reasonable approach in arriving at its legislative decision on a rezoning application.”

As is standard in most such court filings, the city asks that the court order the plaintiffs to reimburse the defendants for costs associated with fighting the petition.

No court date has been set, but the petitioners, who are representing themselves, have asked for a hearing to be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 21.


New Hill to present finalized small area plan in November

In Chambers

Harrell

New Hill Development Corp. is tentatively scheduled to present a small area plan and community vision for the Starr Hill Neighborhood in November.

The corporation was created as a community initiative to spur investment in the Starr Hill area and Vinegar Hill, a historically African American neighborhood that was razed by the city in the 1960s.

In November 2018, the City Council allocated $500,000 to the corporation to fund the plan.

“[The] Small Area Plan … will serve as a mechanism for intentional focus and collaboration in addressing the Starr Hill Community challenges and opportunities for economic, social, physical and cultural vitality within the subject area, as well as its role in the greater Charlottesville community and region,” New Hill wrote in documents submitted to the city.

The small area plan would be bound by Preston Avenue to the north, Ridge/McIntire to the east, the CSX railroad to the south and the Norfolk Southern railroad to the west.

It would be incorporated into the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

CEO Yolunda Harrell said New Hill has submitted a preliminary community vision statement and the driving principles for the plan.

“We want to look at not only where we are today, but where we want to go in the future,” Harrell said. “Ultimately, this is about helping put forth strategies and ideas that the community has worked hard on.”


Mason Pickett convicted of assault; fined $100

Visitors to downtown Charlottesville are likely familiar with Mason Pickett — often seen downtown sporting signs critical of City Councilor Wes Bellamy, Democrats and activists.

Last week, Pickett was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery and fined $100 in Charlottesville General District Court.

The crime occurred on Aug. 12, according to online court records. The Charlottesville Police Department said the charge came about from a citizen complaint that was handled by the commonwealth's attorney's office. Activists said the charge stemmed from an altercation between Pickett and a man protesting the city's statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

It’s the first time Pickett has been convicted of assault despite two other charges in 2017.

In late August 2017, Pickett was charged after authorities allege he attempted to prevent a man from erasing a message on the city’s Free Speech Wall.

The next month, he was charged with assault after a woman alleged that he hit her. He told The Daily Progress at the time that he only brushed the woman as she tried to block people from viewing his sign that said in red letters: “Wes Bellamy is a jackass.”

He was found not guilty of both charges in 2018.

At the time, Pickett told The Progress that "trouble follows me.”


Council signs off on redevelopment of Kmart site, including possible Target

In Chambers

An artist’s rendering of a proposed development appears to show a 40,000-square-foot department store dressed in the guise of a Target store in the former home of the Charlottesville Kmart.

Riverbend Development

A proposed redevelopment of the shuttered Kmart site off U.S. 29 has cleared a final hurdle with the city of Charlottesville.

The City Council gave the final approval for a project to be called Hillsdale Place at its meeting Monday.

An artist’s rendering of the parcel at the intersection of Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29 depicts what appears to be a 40,000-square-foot department store resembling a Target and another hinting at REI, while other buildings are shown with more generic names and designs.

Representatives from Target, REI and the developer, Riverbend Development, haven’t confirmed plans for stores at the site.

The renderings include Target’s signature red bollards and a bright red sign with an anchor where the store’s trademark bull’s-eye normally appears and the word “Anchor” in the name location.


Participatory Budgeting program suspended over resignations

In Chambers

Charlottesville is postponing its participatory budgeting pilot program because the city officials in charge of the initiative resigned.

The program was led by former interim Deputy City Manager Leslie Beauregard and City Council’s former community outreach coordinator, Matt Murphy.

Participatory budgeting allows residents to discuss and directly vote on how money is allocated.

Beauregard and Murphy worked with six other staff members and at leaast three area residents — Matt Slaats, Serena Gruia and Erin Sabina.

Slaats said that Beauregard and Murphy were “core” staff members for the program.

The council set aside $100,000 in the fiscal 2019 budget to be allocated through the program. Because the program didn’t occur, the money will be presented to the council as part of the year-end surplus in December. At that point, councilors can decide whether to reallocate the funds or carry the money forward into the current year’s budget.

However, because the pilot likely won’t occur in fiscal 2020, which ends June 30, the money would have to be set aside in the next year’s budget.

In October 2018, the council agreed to pay $5,600 to Richmond-based Floricane LLC to develop the process that the community will use to direct the funding. City spokesman Brian Wheeler said that work is complete.

In June, Beauregard told the council that the program’s steering committee decided to focus the pilot on the Ridge Street neighborhood.

Beauregard and Murphy were among at least four officials to resign shortly after City Manager Tarron Richardson’s reorganization of Charlottesville’s management structure. Interim Human Resources Director Teresa Vice-Moore and purchasing agent Jennifer Stieffenhofer also resigned. 

Delaying the program is important, but only if the city plans to stabilize leadership and return to it, Slaats said.

“The city has a lot of history of making promises and — based on the communtiy’s perspective — not following up,” he said. “We want the community to trust us, So if it takes another year to get the right infrastructure in place, that’s a good decision.”

“It really comes down to does the city really want to do it. And they shouldn’t do it unless they do it right.”


CRB proposal expected later this month

In Chambers

ANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESS The first public deliberation of the proposed police Civilian Review Board by the Charlottesville City Council Thursday at CitySpace.

Charlottesville should be ready to present a final draft of the bylaws and ordinance for a Police Civilian Review Board at City Council's Oct. 21 meeting, according to officials.

Councilors are currently considering the best setup for a permanent civilian oversight panel. They are reviewing an ordinance and bylaws proposed in August by the initial Police Civilian Review Board.

The bylaws create meeting procedures and the ordinance establishes the board’s composition, staff members and powers.

The proposal calls for a board that conducts independent investigations, reviews complaints and tracks data and trends of the Charlottesville Police Department.

The board would be able to review any complaint against the police department, review the subsequent internal investigation into the complaint and, in limited circumstances, conduct its own independent investigation, according to the proposal.

Any disciplinary measures proposed by the CRB would be sent to the police chief and city manager.

CRB members have called for a budget ranging from $107,000 to $180,000 per year or not less than 1% of the Charlottesville Police Department’s budget, which is about $18 million for the current fiscal year. That decision will be made administratively during the budget cycle and is not directly dictated by the council.

A copy of the final bylaws, ordinance and other documents can be found at tinyurl.com/crbproposal.


Planning Commission discusses history of Artful Lodger building

In Chambers

ANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESSHeirloom Development is seeking a special-use permit to build a 101-foot-tall, mixed-use building on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

At a Charlottesville Planning Commission work session last month, an engineer and owner representative discussed several aspects of Heirloom Development’s special-use permit application for a 101-foot-tall, mixed-use building on the Downtown Mall.

Developer Jeff Levien needs the permit to increase the allowable height and density for the project from 70 feet and 24 units to 101 feet and 134 units.

The proposed structure would sit on Market Street on the current site of The Artful Lodger, The Livery and other small businesses. If a building permit is approved, the existing buildings will be destroyed.

The building would have a mix of commercial space and studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rental apartments.

The Board of Architectural Review signed off on the permit last week and urged the developer to focus on maintaining pedestrian access to the mall.

Commissioner Lisa Green and Genevieve Keller, a member of the city’s Historic Resources Committee, voiced a desire to recognize the existing building’s history as one of the last remnants of the historic Vinegar Hill neighborhood.

The city razed the African American neighborhood in the 1960s to spur redevelopment, displacing scores of residents and businesses. The Artful Lodger building, constructed in 1938, and the adjacent home of Browns Lock & Safe are some of the few remaining structures from the original neighborhood.

“This is one of our last small parts of the Vinegar Hill community, and I am not going to be happy to see it torn down,” Green said. “We talk a good game to make sure we preserve things, but are we doing it?”


Officials discuss proposed improvements to intersection of Barracks and Emmet

In Chambers

ERIN EDGERTON/THE DAILY PROGRESSThe city received $8.6 million through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program to upgrade the intersection of Emmet Street and Barracks Road.

City residents studied the maps and gave their thoughts on proposed improvements to the intersection of Barracks Road and Emmet Street at a public meeting at Walker Upper Elementary.

Consultants and city staff discussed four pedestrian/bike options and three road proposals with the crowd.

The city received $8.6 million to perform updates to the intersection from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program earlier this year. The state funding does not require a local match.

An average of 23,000 vehicles travel north on Emmet Street and 13,000 go west on Barracks through the intersection each day, according to Brennan Duncan, the city’s traffic engineer.

The project will include a pedestrian refuge island, a small section of concrete allowing walkers to stop halfway through a crossing, in the medians of Emmet and Barracks on each side of the roads. The existing Charlottesville Area Transit stop would be upgraded with a bus shelter.

The three road proposals call for right-turn lanes from northbound Emmet Street onto eastbound Barracks Road.

Westbound Barracks would have four lanes at the intersection, of which two would be dedicated left-turn lanes.


Hey-Hey Whaddya Say

Hockey season is back! I promise this won't always be about the Carolina Hurricanes, but they've won their first three games, each with come-from-behind overtime wins. You know what that means? The Storm Surge is back.


Odds & Ends

  • VIRGINIAN-PILOT: The leader of Virginia Beach's school division has filed a workplace complaint against two members of the School Board, saying they created a hostile work environment.

  • LOUDOUN NOW: Another lawsuit has been filed against Purcellville in the aftermath of a saga that led to the firing and reinstatement of the town's police chief. This story is pretty crazy when you get to the part about an investigation into an investigation.

  • NORTHERN VIRGINIA DAILY: Every member of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, its county administrator and schools superintendent were among 14 people indicted in an ongoing scandal of the embezzlement of more than $17 million from the Economic Development Authority.

  • NEW YORK TIMES: South Park has been erased from major platforms in China after mocking the country's sensors on its latest episode. In response, the creators said "Like the N.B.A., we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the tongue-in-cheek statement read. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all."


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