Feb 2 • 16M

February 2, 2022: Senate panel removes Wheeler's name from consideration for environmental job; Decision-point looking for Rivanna River pedestrian bridge

Plus: Tragedy at Bridgewater College with two campus security officers shot dead

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Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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Today is a day of twos but who is counting? And who wants to know that this is also the 33rd day of the new year? Many of our systems of measuring time are fairly arbitrary, but I can also tell you there are now 45 days until the equinox. What else can I tell you on this installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement? First, I’m Sean Tubbs. Second, you’ll just have to stick around for a bit.

Charlottesville Community Engagement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

On today’s program:
  • A status update on planning for the Rivanna River Bike and Pedestrian Bridge

  • A new group forms in Charlottesville to advocate for spending on public education

  • The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee fails to recommend approval of Andrew Wheeler to be Virginia’s Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources

Shout-out to the Charlottesville Jazz Society

In today’s first subscriber-supported public service announcement: The Charlottesville Jazz Society at cvillejazz.org is dedicated to the promotion, preservation, and perpetuation of all that  jazz, and while this might not be the time to go out and listen people who love to play it’s a great time to learn about musicians in our area and get ready for the tunes of the future through their events calendar. The Charlottesville Jazz Society web site and a regular newsletter are both dedicated to enriching your experience of jazz within the Charlottesville community and beyond. Go visit cvillejazz.org to learn more! 

Bridgewater shooting

The website of Bridgewater College in Rockingham County contains a somber message today after two campus police officers were shot and killed yesterday afternoon. 

“Two members of the Bridgewater College family were senselessly and violently taken from us,” reads a message from President David Bushman. “The sadness is palpable. Words are not adequate, not nearly so, to express the grief, sadness, fear and—justifiably—the anger we all feel.”

According to WHSV, Officer John Painter and Officer J.J. Jefferson were shot in the line of duty when they responded to a report of a suspicious individual on campus who shot them after a brief encounter. The 27-year-old suspect fled on foot and was apprehended and charged with two felony counts of murder. 

In his message, Bushman wrote that Painter and Jefferson were close friends and that grief counseling would be available. Bridgewater College is a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,800 students. 

Group wants support for education 

A new group has formed to promote public investment in Charlottesville City Schools. The launch of Charlottesville United for Public Education comes on the same day School Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. will present the operating budget for city schools to the City Council. 

“The organization views the city’s budget planning season as an opportunity to rally behind much-needed investments for public schools,” reads the press release that went out this morning. 

According to the Virginia Department of Education, 46 percent of Charlottesville’s 4,265 students in 2020 were economically disadvantaged, and the organization says the city can do more to support public education.

“Students in low-income families bear the hardship of decades-long disinvestment and need greater instructional, housing, health, and social supports to thrive,” the release continues.

Visit the organization’s website at charlottesvilleunited.org to learn more. City Council’s joint work session begins at 5 p.m. today. (meeting info)

You can look up the metrics of any Virginia locality on the Virginia Department of Education’s School Quality page
Senate panel strips Youngkin’s environment pick from list of nominations for approval

The General Assembly confirms gubernatorial appointments through the passage of resolutions. For instance, Senate Joint Resolution 83 covers agency heads and ranges from new Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to Phil Wittmer, the new chief information officer for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency. 

SJ84 covers Cabinet -level position, from new Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Craig Crenshaw through Andrew Wheeler, Governor Youngkin’s pick for Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. 

The 15-member Senate Privileges and Elections Committee took up those two resolutions and a third on Tuesday. Because the Democratic Party has a slight majority in the Senate, they control the Committees. 

Wheeler’s nomination has been opposed by Democrats and an amendment was made to SJ84 to eliminate his name from approval. Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25) made this motion as soon as the committee took up the resolution yesterday. 

“Mr. Chairman, I move that we amend Senate Joint Resolution 84 to remove lines 42 and 43,” Deeds said. 

That would end the resolution to approve the late up to George Slater, Youngkin’s pick for Secretary of Labor. Republican members of the Committee wanted to debate the amendment. Here’s an exchange between Senator Ryan McDougle (R-4) and Deeds.

McDougle:

“It’s clear that the Committee is stacked 9 to 6 and in a non-partisan way what’s going to happen we should at least have a conversation about it.”

Deeds:

“We’ve received a letter from 150 former [Environmental Protection Agency] employees who suggested that Mr. Wheeler had undermined the work of the EPA and worked against the environmental interests of this country. We think that members of the Governor’s Cabinet ought to be people that unite us as Virginians and certainly the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources ought to be one one that we have confidence in in terms of working for the preservation and conservation of our natural and historic resources and on this side of the aisle we don’t have that level of confidence with this nominee.”

Senator Bryce Reeves read from Wheeler’s resume.

Reeves: 

“He completed his law degree at Washington University and when he served as the administration’s EPA principal, all the things that he’s done, he gave $225 million in funding for water reuse projects to protect the [Chesapeake Bay], provided $200 million for wastewater infrastructure to prevent runoff and sewage from reaching the Bay,  provided funding to Pennsylvania agencies to address agricultural runoff. In 2020 the Bay attained the lowest dead zone in 30 years and underwater seagrasses have increased 34,000 to 100,000 acres. Air emissions decreased seven percent during the last administration and these reductions were pre-COVID. I could just go on and on and on.”

However, Senator Deeds said the Republicans failed to approve an appointment by Governor Tim Kaine in 2006. According to Virginia Memory, Kaine had nominated Daniel LeBlanc to serve as Secretary of Commonwealth, but the House of Delegates blocked used the same procedure to remove LeBlanc in a vote taken on March 7, 2006. (SJ186 from 2006)

“The precedent has been set,” Deeds said.

This is not the end of Wheeler’s nomination. There are many scenarios in which confirmation could still occur. Stay tuned! 

The vote tally for Senator Deeds’ motion

In other General Assembly information, let’s talk about some bills that won’t be moving forward this year but have been continued to next year:

  • SB255 would have removed the ability of localities to regulate cell towers

  • SB132 would have allowed localities to designate smoking areas in their parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers

  • HB898 would have reduced penalties for possession of hallucinogenic substances

  • Several Constitutional amendments have been passed on for the year, including term  limits for General Assembly members (SJ7) and one that would require a Governor to call a special session in order to extend a state of emergency (SJ36). 

More to come. 

Shout-out to a February 8 talk on Jackson P. Burley High 

You’re listening to Charlottesville Community Engagement and it’s time now for another subscriber supported shout-out. On February 8, the author of a book about the history and legacy of Jackson P. Burley High School will give a talk at the Center at Belvedere. Lucille Smith has written Unforgettable: Jackson P. Burley High School 1951-1967, which tells the story of the school that was built for Black students across the region when schools were required by law to be racially segregated. But the book also tells the stories of the students and families who have sought to keep alive the memories. The event begins at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, February 8 at the Center at Belvedere. Learn more at thecentercville.org. 

Decision point looming for Rivanna Bike and Pedestrian Bridge 

At any given point there are dozens of candidates for transportation projects in the community. In recent years, Charlottesville has been successful in seeking funding for streetscape projects to add bike lanes, sidewalks, and other urban amenities. 

The next deadline for Smart Scale funding process through the Virginia Department of Transportation is coming up later this year and one of the projects under consideration is a bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists that would cross the Rivanna River. (most recent presentation)

Dick Ruffin is a member of the Pantops Community Advisory Committee and serves on a stakeholder committee that is overseeing planning efforts for the Rivanna bridge. 

“It’s good for Albemarle County, it’s good for the city, and most especially I think it’s good for connectivity,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin said the project would put a focus on the Rivanna River and will build off of a technical document created by the firm VHB in July 2020. 

“We’ve tried to sort of the pros and cons of the different alignments of the bridge and we are supposed to provide some guidance to the Charlottesville-Albemarle planning office,” Ruffin said. 

That office is technically the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, which is overseeing the planning and will make the Smart Scale submission to VDOT. 

“It does have to be [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessible,” Ruffin said. “We want connectivity to the trails on both sides of the river. There are utility impacts, floodplain considerations, right of way impacts. We’re quite focused also on the aesthetics. We want it to look nice and really be attractive. Of course, cost is a primary thing.” 

Ruffin said the group has not yet made a recommendation on which alignment would be made, but that will come in the near future. They are down to two alternatives.

“Technical considerations have ruled out a number of options so when we say there are two left that’s after a lot of work,” Ruffin said. 

Both options would have an approach on the Albemarle side at the property formerly used by State Farm as their regional headquarters. The exact location for each depends on where it would land on the other side of the river. 

“One is quite near Riverview Park and would actually land on Chesapeake, the road you come down to get into the park,” Ruffin said. “The other would land at the Wool Factory just outside the tunnel that goes under the railway at the bottom of East Market Street.” 

The Chesapeake Street option has a preliminary cost estimate of $11. 3million. The Wool Factory option is more expensive with a $4 million differential. Ruffin said parking considerations are also a factor at both locations.

“I think the Riverview Park folk who live near there are quite worried that the park will become so busy and so  many people coming down that it will be destructive of their neighborhood,” Ruffin said. “So one consideration that we on the Pantops side should have in mind is that the State Farm takeoff point on Pantops has got a lot of space.”

The presentation for the January 20 stakeholder meeting includes these two renderings of what the projects could look like. (download the presentation)

Ruffin said the project could score well on economic development, one of several criteria looked at in the Smart Scale process. The preliminary deadline is March 31 with a final one later in the year. A survey will be posted in the near future to get public opinion. 

Sandy Shackleford, the planning director for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, said the Policy Board of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization will need to select an alignment in March, which is their next regularly scheduled meeting. 

Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek took part in a recent site visit of the area.

“The walkabout in the Woolen Mills was very informative because its really important to see at ground level,” Mallek said. 

Mallek said several ideas came up during the site visit, including ways to control traffic on East Market Street and how to alter the Riverview Park alignment to address a grade differential between the two sides. 

“I just want to make sure that that idea doesn’t get lost along the way,” Mallek said. 

Mallek suggested the MPO should have a meeting in February in order to be able to make an informed decision about the alignment. MPO Chair Ned Gallaway agreed.

“There’s different options and a lot of people’s eyes on it that we want to make sure we’re as informed as we can be going into the meeting that we plan to make the vote on,” Gallaway said. 

For more information, visit the TJPDC’s Smart Scale page to learn about the bridge as well as other potential submissions. 

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