November 3, 2020: Election Day; Pen Park graves; Scottsville's vision for West Downtown

  
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Today, two different sets of numbers lead our newscast. First, there are another 1,261 cases of COVID-19 in Virginia reported this morning, bringing the seven-day average for new cases to 1,324. The seven-day average for positive PCR tests has decreased to 5.7 percent, down from 5.8 percent yesterday. 

In the Blue Ridge Health District, there are three new cases reported today, and Charlottesville reported no new cases for the first time since August 17. The percent positivity rating for PCR tests has decreased to 2 percent.  

The University of Virginia’s COVID-19 tracker lists 26 active cases with 13 of them students.

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Today is election day, and this time around, recently passed legislation combined with the pandemic led to an expansion of flexibility on how people could cast their ballot. Today is the culmination of a historic election period which in Virginia saw the voter registration deadline extended by a court order due to a cut communications cable that shut down the Department of Elections website on the last day to register. 

Nationwide, 98 million Americans are estimated to have voted early in-person or cast a ballot via mail. According to Albemarle’s Twitter account, 41,418 of that county’s residents voted early with roughly a third of those being ballots were sent by mail. That number is just over half of the county’s total registration of 81,683 people.  As of 9 a.m. this morning, the registrar reported 7,620 in-person ballots on this Election Day. 

In Louisa County, a total of 11,486 people voted early, including 3,263 mail ballots received as of yesterday. The total registration in Louisa is 27,290. 

“As of this morning, we have had 4,788 ballots cast in Nelson prior to opening the polls,” said Nelson County registrar Jacqueline Britt. “As of 8:00am, As of 8:00am, we have had 5,599 ballot cast for a 48.1% turnout so far.”

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Charlottesville City Council has been briefed on the recent discovery of unmarked graves at Pen Park that are now believed to be those of enslaved individuals dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The city hired Rivanna Archaeological Services to use ground penetrating radar to confirm a hunch. 

“The city acquired Pen Park in the 1970’s,” said Jeff Werner, the city’s historic preservation planner. “Dr. George Gilmer had acquired it in 1786 and gave it that name.”   

A family cemetery on the property has several marked graves of Gilmer descendants as well as two other families who bought the property in subsequent years. But Werner and others noticed the possibility of other burial sites with no markings by noticing surface depressions. 

“The GPR data suggests the likelihood of 43 unmarked and unrecorded graves outside the walls of the three family plots,” Werner said. “The majority of these graves lie outside the Gilmer and Craven sections and we know that both of those families enslaved individuals and the evidence suggests that these graves are those of individuals enslaved at Pen Park.”

Werner said he felt the city has a responsibility to memorialize the graves given that it is on city property. Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker agreed. 

“We have an obligation here and it’s something that we would want to do right,” Walker said, saying she supported staff’s recommendation to proceed with further study but to be careful not to disturb the graves.

“It’s so important to make sure that the families, as many as possible, are aware of what the options are and something they are on board with,” Walker said. 

Archaeologist Ben Ford said he believed that could be accomplished.

“This type of research has been done and there are individuals who I believe would be willing to lend their expertise on how to pursue this type of research, the contacts that need to be made and how productive it would be.” 

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The Albemarle Architectural Review Board has given their nod to a plan for how to manage the landscapes underneath 1.6 linear miles of electric line on U.S. 29 north of Dickerson Road. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will soon consider a special use permit to allow the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative to install a new powerline on existing poles. As part of the conditions, REC had to run an Integrated Vegetation Management  (IVM) plan by the ARB. The plan governs what vegetation will be allowed along the easement.

“Trees within the right-of-way will be allowed to remain if they are low growing, compatible species such as redbuds, dogwoods, winterberry, serviceberry, etc.,” reads the plan. “Trees that are incompatible, such as yellow-poplars, oaks, maples and other “timber-sized” species will be removed every five years.” 

Attorney Valerie Long appeared before the ARB to explain that IVM is intended to do more than just protect the lines from being taken down by falling trees. 

“The most important [goal] for Rappahannock Electric is always the safety for the public and doing everything it can do to reduce outages that are caused by vegetation but obviously also working to promote pollinator habitat, diverse species, control invasive species, but also recognize that this utility corridor is along a very important entrance corridor for the county,” Long said. 

The ARB voted 3-1 to approve the plan on the condition that native species be used. 

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The Scottsville Planning Commission has endorsed a small area plan for West Downtown that sets out a community vision for eventual redevelopment of a derelict factory. 

“The currently unused tire plant presents both liability and potential to the Town of Scottsville and its residents,” reads a summary in the plan. “With proper consideration and careful site plan review, we can shift the balance from it being a negative feature to a positive one.” 

The former Uniroyal plant was built in 1944 and makes up sixty percent of the 100 acres covered by the plan. The factory was most recently owned by the Hyosung company 

Small Area Plans are not binding documents, but are intended to give direction on what the community would like to see. The 60 acre site is owned by limited liability companies tied to veteran developer Charles Hurt. 

In 2019, the town of Scottsville received a $30,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Community Development that helped pay for flood studies. Matt Lawless is the Scottsville Town Manager.

“We’ve learned a lot together,” Lawless said. “Doing the planning work, meeting our neighbors on this, we’ve gotten to understand the town’s goals and what we are trying to do in this downtown neighborhood a lot better. I feel a lot more comfortable I can do the kind of staff work that’s going to meet with the community’s approval.”

The next step is for the plan to go to Town Council.