After 24 days without major clashes between police and protesters, demonstrations on Saturday night into Sunday morning ended with six arrests, damage to several businesses and VCU properties, and a city dump truck in flames outside Richmond police headquarters.
City officials said supporters of both left-wing and right-wing movements attended the protests, which were advertised as being in support of protesters in Portland, Ore.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said at a news conference on Sunday that white supremacists marched among the hundreds of protesters who wove through downtown Richmond before stopping at the Richmond Police Department headquarters.
Notably, gun-toting members of the Boogaloo Boys — a far-right anti-government group bent on igniting a second Civil War — were seen at the event.
“What changed last night? Let me tell you what I think changed last night,” Stoney said. “There were white supremacists marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, intending to undermine an otherwise overwhelmingly peaceful movement.”
He added: “Last night takes us more steps backwards.”
Later in the news conference, Police Chief Gerald Smith said adherents to antifa also came out to march.
RPD tweeted an image of batteries, rocks and other objects they said were thrown at police outside their headquarters, prompting “an unlawful assembly being declared.”
During Sunday’s news conference, Smith described the flyer shared ahead of the march as intending to stoke “intimidation and fear into the community.” He believes the flyer originated from outside city lines.
“It’s clear that this group came in order to bring violence and disruption to the city of Richmond,” Smith said.
Of the six arrested overnight, four are from Richmond. One is from Hampton, and another, age 28, is from Hopewell and is charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, a felony, and rioting, a misdemeanor.
Five of the men are charged with unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor charge, while one, a 29-year-old from Richmond, is also charged with rioting with a firearm, which is a felony.
All six are men, ages 26 to 36.
Police say all six were part of a group of several hundred protesters who marched through downtown Saturday night. While none of the men was arrested on charges of property damage, Smith said during Sunday’s news conference that RPD is “utilizing a lot of video” to identify those engaged in destruction of property overnight.
Around the same time that demonstrators marched through the city, an altercation involving gunfire and racial slurs occurred between two armed individuals — one a protester and another a self-professed veteran, according to a video shared on social media.
The latter individual exited his vehicle before engaging in a verbal altercation with a protester and firing his weapon onto the asphalt.
As he drove off, racist slurs were shouted. Smith said RPD intends to investigate the incident, but no other details were currently available.
The marchers, whom Smith characterized as majority-white, started off in Monroe Park just after 9:30 p.m. and went through downtown before heading to RPD headquarters.
RPD declared an unlawful assembly just after 11 p.m. Saturday as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the headquarters on West Grace Street.
Shortly after that declaration, some protesters shattered windows of city dump trucks used to block off the area around the RPD headquarters and set one of them on fire. Then, police deployed chemical agents and flash-bangs to disperse the crowd of more than 200.
After police secured the scene, fire crews put out the burning dump truck. Firefighters faced projectiles thrown by protesters, such as “bricks, batteries and rocks,” Smith said.
The march continued around the Fan District after the crowd was dispersed from RPD headquarters. Marchers lit fire to several dumpsters.
Damage occurred in and around the VCU campus, Richmond police said, especially to buildings and businesses in the 800 block of West Grace.
The damage done to VCU’s Monroe Park campus during Saturday night’s protest is expected to be assessed at more than $100,000, according to VCU President Michael Rao. He also asked for the commonwealth’s attorney to press charges against anyone involved.
Calling it “heartbreaking to see,” Rao said more than 80 windows were shattered and dozens of buildings were damaged and tagged with graffiti. He also said furniture had been dragged out into the street and damaged.
“Both Richmond and VCU police tell us the demonstrators were different last night compared to those participating in other peaceful demonstrations that occurred in Richmond over the last several weeks,” Rao said in a message to university and health system students, faculty and staff Sunday afternoon.
“The protest was promoted in social media and flyers to be destructive, ostensibly to support protests in Portland. We are concerned about groups that promote destruction and violence co-opting important social justice reform movements.”
Rao went on to say: “VCU supports free speech and stands in solidarity with those peacefully expressing messages of social justice and equity for all people. VCU does not condone — under any circumstance — acts of violence or vandalism, regardless of the purported cause. Violence against people and deliberate destruction of property are contrary to the values of our community and will not be tolerated.”
Business owners along West Grace Street woke up to shattered windows and spray-painted storefronts. Crews and business owners spent Sunday morning and afternoon boarding up the windows smashed at nearly every storefront from the 800 block to the 1000 block of West Grace.
Josh Rueger, owner of Village Cafe, was nervous when he first saw the flyer promoting Saturday’s march. When protests turned violent in May, the to-go tent outside the cafe was burned down and one of his windows was smashed, but he still decided against boarding up his windows ahead of protests on Saturday.
Overnight, one of his windows was broken — the same one that was shattered nearly two months prior.
“We’re lucky that’s all that happened,” Rueger said.
While Village Cafe opened as usual on Sunday morning, the Noodles & Co. store on West Grace Street closed for the day, after demonstrators threw rocks through five windows. David Lambert, a local optician who has owned the building since 2003, had hoped that the “Black-owned” sign he had displayed on his storefront would deter demonstrators from targeting his restaurant.
One of his windows was smashed amid protests in late May, too.
“It’s just sad how even the Black-owned businesses get hit,” Lambert said.
Still, he hopes to see all charges against protesters dropped and has himself attended several recent protests. Lambert, who says he’s “been with Black Lives Matter since he was born,” plans to guard his restaurant tonight to prevent further damage and engage in conversation with demonstrators.
Next door to Noodles & Co., the Chipotle Mexican Grill had several windows broken. The Richmond Fire Department responded to the location in the 800 block of West Grace early Sunday where flames could be seen coming from the front of the restaurant.
Its windows were completely shattered, as protesters continued to march through downtown Richmond and the Fan District. - Ali Sullivan
News from Saturday:
The Richmond Police Department declared an unlawful assembly just after 11 p.m. Saturday night as hundreds of protesters gathered outside its downtown headquarters on West Grace Street.
Shortly after that declaration, and after some protesters shattered windows of city dump trucks used to block off the area around the RPD headquarters and set one of them on fire, police deployed chemical agents and flash bangs to disperse the crowd of more than 200 protesters.
After securing the scene, fire crews put out the burning dump truck.
The scene outside of police headquarters was immediately tense as the crowd arrived, with some protesters taunting officers and seemingly trying to goad them into action.
Hundreds of protesters left out of Monroe Park just after 9:30 p.m. and marched through downtown before heading to the RPD headquarters.
A reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and one from the Commonwealth Times were nearly detained in the aftermath at RPD headquarters. Both were running from the scene after being disoriented by the flash bangs and chemical agents that were used, when they stopped in a parking lot and were surrounded by more than five police officers.
Smith told The Times-Dispatch on Sunday afternoon that he will make a thorough inquiry into the incident and that it will be under review.
Officers forced them against the wall and binded their hands behind their back while they repeatedly identified themselves as working press and showed state-issued press badges. They were eventually released.
Word of Saturday night's protest had been widely circulated on social media in the days leading up to it, with some aggressive language against police and federal government in a flyer made by a group saying they stood in support of the people protesting in Portland, Ore. The flyer also insinuated doing damage during the protest.
The flyer and march was not organized by the Black youth who’ve been at the forefront of Richmond’s protests, which have continued for nearly 60 straight days.
Around 12:45 a.m. Sunday, Richmond police tweeted a video of an officer extinguishing a mattress that was set on fire in the middle of Cary Street in the Fan. - Sabrina Moreno
There’s a food fight, of sorts, going on in King William County, and it’s gotten a little messy.
A county farmer, Christopher C. Couch, doesn’t believe the salads he packages and delivers to customers around the Richmond area should be subject to the county’s meals tax; county officials believe otherwise.
Both sides have dug in their heels, believing they are in the right.
Beyond an unresolved dispute, thousands have been spent in legal fees in the yearlong battle and hard feelings have emerged. Couch has used his farm’s website and social media to wage a public battle against the county, and he conducted a failed write-in campaign in November to unseat the county’s commissioner of revenue, Sally W. Pearson, who is responsible for administering the tax.
Couch also felt Pearson and her staff were mocking him when they wore T-shirts bearing the images of salad ingredients to an office Halloween party last year; one shirt bore the image of a head of lettuce over the words “Romaine Calm.”
Pearson, who was one of Couch’s early subscribers to his salad service before canceling when he refused to pay the meals tax, says members of her staff were upset by Couch’s characterizations of them in the ongoing dispute and that the shirts were a lighthearted response to the situation.
“It wasn’t mean-spirited,” Pearson said. Nonetheless, the county administrator issued an official statement after the event saying the costumes were “inappropriate and unprofessional.”
After failing to resolve the issue, Couch appealed to the state tax commissioner, but he learned earlier this month that the appeal was denied because the state does not have jurisdiction to rule on cases involving local meals taxes.
Couch said he could take the case to circuit court — meaning more legal costs for him and King William taxpayers. He also hopes to work through the General Assembly to draft legislation to change state law that he says does not properly cover farm-to-consumer businesses such as his and also come up with ways to help people and small businesses address county-level issues through more effective administrative appeals instead of in a courtroom.
If he is wrong, the amount of tax Couch may owe the county is small — almost certainly less than $100, he says, because he sells relatively few salads in King William itself. No other jurisdictions where he delivers salads have asserted that he owes meals taxes there.
Why not just pay the $100 in back taxes and move on?
Mainly because, he said, “It’s not justified. My concern about agreeing to the tax is that in doing so I would be implying the tax is valid.
“I agree in paying legitimate taxes,” he said in an interview, “[but] why should I charge [customers] a tax that’s not justified?”
He added, “I just wonder how many farmers, small-business owners have fallen victim to these things in the past. That’s one of the reasons I’m standing up.”
The commonwealth allows localities the authority to impose taxes on prepared food and beverages, the so-called meals tax. King William voters approved a 4% meals tax in a 2008 referendum.
The rural county of about 17,000 residents, according to 2019 census estimates, collects meals taxes from about 40 businesses, Pearson said. The county expects to collect $420,000 for fiscal year 2020, she said, with the money earmarked for emergency services.
Over the years, Pearson said there have been occasional disputes with businesses over the meals tax.
“They didn’t think it applied to them, but we’ve been able to come to a mutual understanding ... the law does apply to them,” she said. “But Mr. Couch does not think it applies to him.”
Meals taxes often generate passionate opposition, particularly from members of the restaurant community who might feel unfairly targeted by the tax. Such was the case in the city of Richmond in 2018 when the meals tax was raised from 6% to 7.5% as a way to finance improvements in school facilities. City officials said at the time that the 1.5-point increase would mean $9.1 million in new revenue.
Occasionally, confusion and disputes arise over meal taxes. In Richmond, the city and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery went back and forth over a couple of years about meals taxes the city believed the brewery should have been collecting, while the brewery said it had been told it didn’t need to.
The backdrop to the case was the period of time when rules were shifting pertaining to the rapidly growing craft beer industry.
Eventually, the city agreed to a settlement that wiped out more than $61,000 the city had been trying to collect.
In Henrico County, where such revenue is dedicated to the operational and capital project needs of public schools, the meals tax is 4%, having been approved by voters in a 2013 referendum.
A Henrico official said how each county handles its meal tax is up to that county as state law is “broad and the local ordinances all have subtle differences.”
“This allows the local tax official to decide interpretation of the ordinances,” said Elaine G. Hahn, Henrico’s business section manager.
Couch, 46, spent more than 20 years in the corporate world, much of it as a management consultant, before making a career turn to farming. He moved to King William more than a decade ago to establish Dreaming Tree Farms, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he began partnering with local farms to develop his “farm-to-salad” subscription business.
He generally gathers seasonal produce from his partner farms or his own greenhouse, typically adds other ingredients including a grain, seeds or nuts, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh or dried fruit, and packages more than 300 salads in his commercial kitchen for once-a-week delivery to subscribers throughout the Richmond area.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Couch says his business has tripled, though the meals tax issue has been “a huge distraction to a small-business owner trying to grow their business.”
Couch compares his operation to community-supported agriculture, in which consumers purchase local food directly from a farmer, typically buying “shares,” and receive produce each week through the farming season.
The salads vary from week to week, depending on what’s available, but generally are 15 to 17 ounces, which, he said, makes them larger than the “prepackaged single-serving salads consisting primarily of an assortment of vegetables” — and therefore exempt from the meals tax — cited both in the state tax code and King William meals tax guidelines.
County officials disagree, saying “single-serving” is not defined by ounces. Pearson said she believes the Dreaming Tree Farms’ salads “meet the description of ‘prepackaged single-serving salads’” in the tax code. She compared the salads to a pizza that is subject to the meals tax and might or might not be consumed by one person in a single sitting.
Couch counters with other points. He said he is not a restaurant — which county officials acknowledge — or a “mobile point of service” (such as a food truck) or the deli section of a grocery store, where prepackaged salads are subject to the meals tax.
He considers himself a “food manufacturer” under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and is held to Food and Drug Administration labeling standards.
However, he believes FDA guidelines that define a single serving of vegetable-based salad as 1 cup, or 3.5 ounces, should also be used in his case. Pearson said FDA guidelines do not come into play in the way the county administers the meals tax.
Pearson said Dreaming Tree Farms is indeed a “different model of business” than others that pay meals tax in the county, but she said the reasoning behind taxing his salads are no different than single-serving salads sold in grocery stores that are subject to the meals tax.
For his part, Couch says his salads are more comparable to the larger salad kits sold in the produce section of supermarkets that are not subject to the meals tax.
The sides remain at an impasse.
The county has spent $31,000 in legal fees in its battle with Couch — a figure county manager Bobbie H. Tassinari confirmed — while Couch said he has spent less than $2,000. He also has enlisted the help of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which has said Couch’s experience “is exactly why so many enterprising small farmers cannot get their businesses off the ground.”
Couch said he wants to avoid further legal costs and hopes to resolve the issue with the county outside court, but he also does not want to back down from what he believes to be his legitimate cause.
The county likewise has no plans to change its position.
“As commissioner of the revenue, my main concern is to be fair to everyone,” Pearson said. “I have to try to make sure there’s equity and that everybody pays their fair share of the tax.”
She did note, in regard to the meals taxes the county believes Couch owes, “We’re not talking about a lot of money.”
“I understand the point isn’t about the amount of money that Mr. Couch owes the county for meals tax, but you would think that it was a very large amount based on the extremes” he has gone to.
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Six summers ago, a group of community activists from both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains met around a kitchen table at a Christmas tree farm in Augusta County to face the emerging threat of a natural gas pipeline that Virginia’s largest energy company was planning to build through the heart of the state.
Dominion Energy already had begun notifying landowners along a 400-foot-wide study corridor for the Southeast Reliability Project. Three months later, it would become the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a multibillion-dollar construction project that would have cut a swath through the Allegheny Highlands, the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge and the central Piedmont on its way to the southeastern coast.
Six years later, the $8 billion, 604-mile project is dead, thwarted by homegrown community organizing and a legal strategy that took root in the June 2014 meeting at Francisco Farms, which the original route of the pipeline would have come near in Augusta.
“That meeting at the farm was the first time people from different communities had gotten together,” said Ernie Reed, a current member of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors and a past president of Friends of Nelson, one of 50 community organizations that ultimately formed the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance to oppose the pipeline.
The meeting was at the home of Bill Francisco, whose daughter, Sarah, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, was leading an imminently successful effort to stop fracking and other forms of oil and gas exploration in almost all of the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest.
“Here was a project that put this immense natural gas pipeline on top of that national forest,” said Sarah Francisco, now director of the Virginia office of the law center.
Supported by a philanthropic endowment and $131 million in net assets at the end of 2018, the law center took the lead role in a legal alliance that stymied federal and state permits for the project in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, despite a high-profile defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court on a permit for the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail. Opponents lost only one case at the 4th Circuit, which upheld Virginia’s water quality certification for the project.
“SELC is founded on the principle that the courts are the ultimate backstop and that the law will prevail,” Francisco said. “The law and the facts carried the day with this project.”
Dominion, based in Richmond, canceled the project with its partner, Duke Energy, on July 5, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency order to narrow a federal court ruling in Montana that would have blocked pipeline projects across the country from using a nationwide water quality permit for crossing multiple bodies of water and wetlands without undergoing reviews for each.
No more appetite
The partners, Dominion and Duke Energy, made clear that no matter how the Supreme Court acted on the issue, they had no more appetite for legal battles that had delayed the project’s anticipated completion by more than three years and added more than $3 billion to its cost.
With $3.4 billion already spent, they said they weren’t willing to invest more shareholder money to clear trees in the project’s path during the upcoming winter and prepare for construction without greater legal certainty.
“To state the obvious, permitting for gas transmission and storage has become increasingly litigious, uncertain and costly,” Dominion Chairman and CEO Tom Farrell told financial analysts the day after announcing the decision to end the project.
Derek Teaney, senior attorney at Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said the Supreme Court’s emergency ruling to limit the Montana decision to construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline won’t stop similar challenges to the use of the Nationwide 12 permit for other pipelines.
“Somebody is going to bring that question to the 4th Circuit,” Teaney said.
Dominion officials declined to comment for this story, but other supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline were critical of the legal strategy of opponents to use the courts to block numerous permits federal and state agencies issued for the project.
Delay ‘a success’
“The tactic to defeat the pipeline was one where delay was considered a success,” said Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber, which supported the project as vital to the state’s competitiveness for economic development projects that require reliable sources of natural gas.
“The concern of the business community is when courts begin to substitute their judgment for that of elected officials,” DuVal said.
The decision to cancel the project also disappointed West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose state relies economically on energy production from shale gas fields in the Marcellus Basin that would have supplied the pipeline.
“Litigation should not be a barrier to economic development,” Morrisey said in an email statement. “While appropriate protections have their place, this strategy does little to help the environment and instead hurts hard-working pipeliners, laborers and the countless others who rely upon their success.”
The American Petroleum Institute warned that the legal system has become a barrier for production and transmission of energy.
“Unfortunately, activists have been able to successfully manipulate an outdated, convoluted system, opening the door for a barrage of baseless litigation and nearly endless delay,” spokeswoman Bethan Aronhalt said in an email statement.
Rigged by FERC?
But environmentalists say the process was rigged in the other direction by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which issued a certificate for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in October 2017. The commission used a series of tolling orders to delay rehearing of the order for almost 10 months, preventing legal challenges in the courts.
“The practice is immensely unfair,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who also attended the meeting at Francisco Farms.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia prohibited the use of tolling orders in late June in a case brought by the Allegheny Defense Project, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that Nelson supervisor Ernie Reed said he recruited after the meeting in 2014 to help advise opponents on how to work against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at FERC.
“Not only is the ACP a turning point, but there have been other important decisions that are going to make the process fairer and more transparent,” Buppert said.
The massive legal effort that stopped the Atlantic Coast Pipeline grew directly from the communities in the path of the project, including the law firms that worked to stop it.
“The project was really in the backyard of SELC as an organization of Virginia and North Carolina,” said Patrick Hunter, senior attorney at the law center’s office in Asheville, N.C., one of nine offices it operates in the Southeast with more than 80 attorneys.
Hunter played a major role in successful challenges of the permits required for the pipeline to cross the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway and, until the Supreme Court ruling in June, the Appalachian Trail.
He also was part of the legal team that persuaded the 4th Circuit to throw out the biological opinion and incidental take statement that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had issued to ensure that the pipeline construction would not risk the existence of endangered and threatened species, including the rusty patched bumblebee in the mountains of Bath County.
It was the second time the 4th Circuit had tossed out the incidental take statement for failing to determine the effect on the bumblebee and other endangered species.
“You can’t say it’s not going to be a problem and not impact the species if you don’t know where the species is because you haven’t looked for it,” Hunter said.
The pipeline company suspended construction after the court issued the second ruling in December 2018 and declined to stay its effect on the entire length of the project.
Work never resumed.
Teaney, at Appalachian Mountain Advocates, is a ninth-generation West Virginian whose daily commute crosses the Greenbrier River, which became part of what he called “a multifront battle” against both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the 302-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, partly constructed through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
“Being an environmental advocacy law firm, there was no way we weren’t going to be involved,” said Teaney, who played a leading role in blocking the water quality permit for both pipelines to cross the Greenbrier and other bodies of water, a barrier that remains for the Mountain Valley project.
‘We don’t charge for our work, but there are people who like the work we’re doing,” he said.
The SELC also doesn’t charge its clients fees, Francisco said. “We have the ability to choose our cases based on what’s at stake for the environment and the people who are affected.”
The Sierra Club, one of the organizations represented in the suits, also brought its legal resources to bear on its own behalf and that of Wild Virginia.
Citizens’ ‘huge role’
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, another well-established nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, also joined lawsuits against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline because of concerns about potential effects on water quality, both from construction and airborne pollution from a proposed natural gas compressor station in Buckingham County.
“The citizens played a huge role in these cases,” said Jon Mueller, vice president of litigation at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and former environmental enforcement attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mueller cited the research of Yogaville resident Lakshmi Fjord and other activists in persuading the 4th Circuit to reject a state air pollution permit that would have allowed construction of a natural gas compressor station next to the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham.
The Buckingham air permit case also showed a growing impatience of a three-judge panel on the 4th Circuit with how Dominion and government agencies, both at the federal and state levels, handled permit applications for the project, specifically for protecting the health of Union Hill residents.
“That panel had heard enough about what Dominion had been doing,” Mueller said.
The 4th Circuit’s skepticism about the permitting process for the project was most apparent in a ruling by the same three-judge panel in December 2018, that quoted from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” in rejecting the permits the Forest Service issued to allow the pipelines to cross 21 miles of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.
“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” concluded the ruling, written by Judge Stephanie Thacker of West Virginia. “A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”
The ruling also rejected the permit issued by the agency to allow the pipeline to cross under the Appalachian Trail in a tunnel through the Blue Ridge between Augusta and Nelson counties.
The Supreme Court overturned the ruling on a 7-2 vote in June, but the project still lacked a valid permit to cross the national forests because of the 4th Circuit’s finding that the Forest Service had not done the necessary work to protect steep mountain slopes and comply with the agency’s management plans for the forests.
‘Sweet spots’ for SELC
The law center had played a major part in raising concerns about the permitting process at the Forest Service. It used Freedom of Information requests to document apparent changes of position after President Donald Trump’s election on a platform that emphasized energy development.
“SELC knows the Forest Service inside and out,” said Nancy Sorrells, who was a member of the Augusta Board of Supervisors during the fight to prevent fracking in the George Washington National Forest. She co-founded the Augusta County Alliance after the 2014 meeting at Francisco Farms. She is now Augusta coordinator at the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley.
The law center had worked extensively on the George Washington forest management plan and other efforts to protect public lands, but it also had developed expertise on energy regulation and renewable energy, as well as the Endangered Species Act.
“The project really hit the sweet spots for SELC,” Buppert said.
Meanwhile, environmental groups were raising concerns publicly about the need for the project and its contribution to greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, linked to global warming and climate change.
A Democratic takeover of the General Assembly this year led to passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act to promote the use of renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, and the state this month became the first in the South to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“Time was on our side,” Friends of Nelson President Doug Wellman said in a message to members this month. “While our team was bedeviling Dominion’s team with beautifully crafted lawsuits, the world was changing in our favor.”
The board that oversees Richmond’s public housing agency will soon have five new faces.
The Richmond City Council on Monday is scheduled to approve part of a slate of new appointees to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. The nine-member body sets policy for, and could chart redevelopment of, the city’s roughly 4,000 public housing units, home to some of the region’s poorest families.
“I’m mostly concerned that people in public housing aren’t getting an opportunity or having a voice in the progression in the city, in the upward mobility,” said William R. Johnson Jr., a former Richmond city councilman who is up for appointment.
“They’re left on the sidelines and being dictated to rather than having a seat at the table and benefiting from the growth and development the city is experiencing.”
Input from public housing residents must drive the board’s decisions, said Patrice Shelton, president of the Hillside Court Tenant Council, the body that represents residents who live in the South Richmond public housing community she has called home for 10 years.
Shelton, a certified community health worker for the Richmond City Health District, is one of two new tenant representatives set for appointment to the board, succeeding longtime representative Marilyn Olds. Rethinking how the agency conducts public engagement is one of her goals, she said.
“We need to make it so the residents feel comfortable going to a member on the commissioner board or a member of RRHA and not feel judged or ridiculed about questions or concerns or ideas they might have,” Shelton said. “There’s a trust broken there.”
Johnson and Shelton are among a crop of five new candidates a council panel recommended for appointment to the board last week, alongside two reappointments. Pending approval from the full council, the new commissioners will arrive at what is a critical juncture for the agency.
Major questions about the future of the city’s six largest public housing communities remain unanswered. The man who pledged last year to transform them in short order lasted barely a year on the job.
Damon E. Duncan resigned his post as CEO of the housing authority in the spring. The board appointed the agency’s controller, Stacey Daniels-Fayson, as interim CEO, the agency’s fourth chief executive since January 2018.
A national search to find a permanent replacement is planned, though details of that effort are sparse.
At the urging of current board chairwoman Veronica Blount, commissioners held a closed session to discuss the position earlier this month. The board has not publicly communicated a timeline for its search or said what role residents may play in the process. Complicating matters, most of the commissioners’ four-year terms — Blount’s included — expired months ago.
With few board members eligible for reappointment, the City Clerk’s Office solicited applications to fill the vacancies earlier this year. A lengthy vetting process led by the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Standing Committee ensued.
That process was temporarily put on hold after Duncan, in March, took part in a round of interviews for candidates interested in joining the board. His participation raised ethical questions, given that the board hires and fires the CEO.
After soliciting more applicants, the council committee held a second round of interviews last month. A theme arose during the interviews, said Ellen Robertson, the councilwoman who chairs the panel that interviewed candidates.
“One statement was consistent with each applicant, and that was building trust with the residents,” Robertson said.
The panel rescored candidates and recommended a slate last week based on those assessments.
Aside from Johnson, the former councilman, the committee recommended for appointment Basil Gooden, a former Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry; Barrett Hardiman, a lobbyist and former Richmond School Board candidate; and Neil Kessler, a retired lawyer who currently sits on the board.
Appointments for tenant representation must clear a second council panel before the full body can consider them. That vote is tentatively scheduled for September.
Aside from Shelton, the Hillside Court Tenant Council president, the committee recommended Charlene Pitchford, a member of the Gilpin Court Tenant Council; and Blount, the board’s chairwoman, for reappointment.
The council is scheduled to meet electronically beginning at 6 p.m. Monday.