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Hanover's historic Brown Grove community allowed to search for graves at the planned Wegmans distribution center site

Members of a historic African American community in Hanover County were among people who spent several hours hiking through thick brush on Monday in search of gravesites.

The weather was muggy and the mosquitoes buzzing. People didn’t want to pass up the chance, however, to look for any evidence of gravesites in the rural, wooded areas where Wegmans Food Markets Inc. plans to build a massive $175 million distribution warehouse that has faced nearly two years of opposition.

The search was approved and supervised by Wegmans, whose archaeological and cultural resource management consulting firm, Chesterfield County-based Dutton + Associates, plans to use technology called “ground penetrating radar” to continue looking.

The 217-acre site for the planned distribution center is located at Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads, about 2 miles east of the Atlee-Elmont exit off Interstate 95. The property is east of the Hanover County Airport and across Sliding Hill Road from the Fox Head subdivision.

The group ventured into the woods in several areas after meeting at Brown Grove Baptist Church on Ashcake Road.

Charles Morris, 78, is a descendant of one of the area’s original settlers, Caroline Dobson Morris, a woman born into slavery. He helped direct officials from the consulting firm Monday about where to go.

As a child of around 5 years old, he said, he remembered walking the area for several years with his father to pick blueberries early in the morning. His father had lost his job with the railroad, and the family needed food.

The young Morris remembers seeing unmarked graves under a canopy of trees; five graves were grouped together and two were grouped separately. He was in awe of them, and would sneak a peek because they looked fresh. Maybe they were a family, or Native Americans.

“My dad would say, ‘Leave them alone. Come on,’” Morris said.

He told the group on Monday that searchers needed to head into the woods near a farmhouse and walk the distance of about two city blocks.

David Dutton, a partner in Dutton + Associates, told the group that his firm had cut paths in the woods in areas that community members wanted to look at so they could explore, take notes and flag any areas that needed follow-up.

“We’re here as a resource to help navigate you around,” he said.

He said his firm had not previously found obvious signs of burial sites after looking for indications on the ground or artifacts, but that doesn’t mean burial sites don’t exist. “We are very much respectful of your views,” he said.

They looked at the site of an old school, where the chimney supports remain.

They found the general area Morris remembered as a child. Morris scanned the ground. Dutton said that any mounds would no longer be visible because of time and logging, but that his firm would clear some of the brush to use the radar in areas they noted.

“That sounds good,” Morris told him.

Morris later said in an interview that when he was a boy, the area had trees but was not so overgrown. He didn’t see anything in the woods Monday that looked familiar.

Michael L. Blakey, professor of anthropology and American studies and director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary, said he’s volunteering to assist the Brown Grove community and make sure archaeology on the site is done right.

The area does not have observable features of burial sites, he said Monday during the exploration. Ground penetrating radar will be needed because it can show anomalies that would be consistent with graves.

Blakey also said he didn’t see evidence that Dutton + Associates has appropriate expertise in African American studies or history, and said the firm should work with the community to allow the public to help guide the research.

While elected officials from Hanover to the governor are big backers of the planned distribution center project, it has faced opposition because of noise, traffic and quality-of-life concerns since it was first announced in December 2019.

The Hanover Board of Supervisors approved zoning changes in May 2020 to allow the project to move forward despite fierce opposition from hundreds of neighbors. Wegmans paid $4 million to buy the property two months ago.

Some citizens filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court in April against the State Water Control Board and the state Department of Environmental Quality, alleging they did not allow meaningful input before issuing the permit in February.

Clark Mercer, chief of staff to Gov. Ralph Northam and a supporter of the project who lives a few miles away, hiked part of the way in dress clothes, dodging bushes with prickly thorns. Mercer told the group he was “here to listen and learn.”

In the 2019 announcement that said the center would create 700 jobs, Northam said he was using $2.35 million in state money as an incentive for Wegmans to build it.

“It’s a significant win when a business decides to create 700 full-time, well-paid jobs, and we are proud that a company of Wegmans’ stature has chosen to establish its major new operation in Hanover County,” Northam said at the time.

A spokesman for Wegmans declined to comment.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans has two stores in the Richmond region and wants to build the giant distribution center to support the chain’s growth as it continues expanding into the South with more grocery stores.

The family-owned supermarket chain came to Virginia in 2004 and now has 13 stores statewide with plans for two more. It has opened four stores in North Carolina with plans for another one.

The Hanover site would be the chain’s third distribution center.

Authorities seeking transfer to adult court for 14-year-old accused of killing 13-year-old Lucia Bremer in Henrico

Authorities are seeking to have a 14-year-old youth charged with the murder of 13-year-old Lucia Bremer in Henrico County last March transferred from juvenile court to Circuit Court for trial as an adult.

Shannon Taylor, Henrico County Commonwealth’s attorney, said Monday following a closed hearing before Henrico Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Stacy E. Lee that her office has given notice it is seeking the transfer. A transfer hearing was set for Nov. 22, and either side can appeal the judge’s decision, said Taylor.

Though the youth is charged with first-degree murder, if he is tried in juvenile court, he could only be held by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice until the age of 21. If tried as an adult, he could receive up to life in prison.

Taylor said that with a conviction for charges as serious as those he is facing, six or seven years in the juvenile system may not be adequate for him to receive the services he may need. On the other hand, she said seeking transfer does not necessarily mean her office believes a young person should be serving a significant part of their life in adult prison.

“It’s not just about serving time in prison, but it is also about utilizing the adult services that are out there,” she said. The youth was initially charged with second-degree murder but is now facing a charge of first-degree murder, said Taylor.

The youth also faces felony charges of attempted murder, threatening to shoot up a school and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He also faces misdemeanor charges of brandishing a firearm and possession of a firearm by a minor.

Bremer attended Quioccasin Middle School, where she was in the eighth grade. The shooting occurred around 4:30 p.m. on March 26, in the 1900 block of Hickoryridge Road in the Gayton Forest West community.

A path connects the neighborhood to nearby Godwin High School.

Authorities have not disclosed where the boy attended school because it might identify him.

Taylor said in August that her office was considering charges against the adult who owned the handgun the boy allegedly used. Asked about those potential charges on Monday, Taylor said, “Those are forthcoming, but I can’t really get any more specific than that.”

Taylor did not identify the adult, but said someone in the boy’s household had a handgun to which the boy got access, she added.

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Stoney proposing $78 million for parks and community centers, $3,000 bonus for first responders in 2-year special budget

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wants to use fresh federal COVID-19 emergency aid to build and enhance community centers, provide $3,000 bonuses for first responders, boost affordable housing programs and redevelop public housing.

Stoney on Monday presented the City Council with an outline of a $155 million draft spending plan for the aid Congress and federal officials allotted to the city through the American Rescue Plan Act that passed earlier this year.

While the Stoney administration has yet to introduce a formal budget and appropriation ordinance, the mayor said he wants the council to adopt the special budget plan by the end of next month.

“We owe it to our loved ones to continue to be strong. We must continue to be resilient. And I know City Council shares my commitment to emerge from this crisis and seize the opportunity we have to make life better in our city,” said Stoney, who has been conferring with individual council members in recent weeks.

After the mayor’s presentation on Monday, several council members noted they had recently started discussing their own expenditure plans after their summer recess in August.

City Council President Cynthia Newbille said additional work sessions and public outreach sessions are being planned so that officials and residents can examine the spending plan.

The mayor’s plan does not include any allocations for Richmond Public Schools, which is set to receive its own $123 million allotment from the same federal aid package.

Here is a summary of the plan the mayor presented Monday:

City parks and community centers

Half of the funding, $78 million, is being proposed to upgrade community centers so that they can provide a wider array of public services; facilitating access to financial and housing assistance, basic health care, youth programming, wellness education and workforce training.

Specifically, the plan for parks and community centers feature:

  • $20 million for improvements to the TB Smith Community Center near the Davee Gardens neighborhood in South Side;
  • $20 million to build a new community center at Lucks Field in Church Hill;
  • $16 million to finalize improvements to the Southside Community Center;
  • $8 million for the renovation of the Calhoun Center and its pool in Gilpin Court;
  • $12 million for implementation of the James River Master Plan in the James River Branch Trail, Forest Hill Park and Texas Beach areas; and
  • $2 million for the creation of a park system master plan and acquisition of land to build new parks.

Stoney said the administration selected the specific project sites because they are near neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates in the city. About 100,000 city residents, he added, will be within a 10-minute walk of one of the community centers.

“This investment will allow us to transform how we offer city services to residents and help us create a more connected, accessible and green city,” he said.

Housing and redevelopment

The two-year budget plan includes $20 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, $6.8 million for the redevelopment of Creighton Court and $5.5 million for the Highland Grove redevelopment project that’s slated to add 122 new homes where Dove Court was formerly located in North Richmond.

The investment in the city’s housing trust fund would meet a City Council resolution to allocate $10 million to it annually starting this year. (The current budget allocates $2.9 million.)

Stoney last year proposed a plan to use new real estate tax revenues from properties with expiring tax abatements for the affordable housing fund. Administration officials, however, estimated that the approach would not generate $10 million for the fund until 2025.

The money proposed for the first phase of the two redevelopment projects would begin the process of converting the public housing sites into “mixed-income” communities. Later Monday night, the City Council approved a preliminary plan for the phased demolition of the 504-unit Creighton Court complex, which would be replaced by 700 new apartments, town houses and other housing over the next 10 years.

The plan also includes a separate $8.2 million to assist property owners with weatherization, pipe replacement and home rehabilitation projects.

$3,000 bonuses for public safety employees

The plan includes $5 million to cover $3,000 bonuses for police, firefighters, 911 call operators and Richmond Ambulance Authority employees.

The 2021-2022 budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1 includes a 3.25% pay increase for all city employees, but city officials say they’re still hearing concerns from public safety employees about relatively low pay and mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages.

According to the Richmond Police Department, 89 of its employees either resigned or retired between June 1, 2020, and June 15, 2021. Stoney and several council members planned to hold a private meeting to discuss the turnover and morale issues among police last month, but walked away when the city attorney said it needed to be public.

Stoney said the bonus is a reward for front-line workers who served during the pandemic. He said the administration is also developing plans to adjust the current fiscal year’s budget so that the same $3,000 bonus can be given to all other city employees.

Health, child care, outreach and public safety

The mayor’s plan includes $5 million to establish a new special fund that would be managed by the Richmond City Health District. Stoney said the fund could be used to support COVID-19 vaccination outreach, food access and security, substance-use disorder treatment and infant and maternal health initiatives.

The plan also includes $2 million to support child care efforts through the office of Children and Families, $1.4 million for a COVID response reserve fund, $1.5 million for the Office of Community Wealth Building’s workforce development and Community Ambassadors program, $1.5 million for a gun violence prevention initiative and $2 million for lighting improvements and security cameras in residential and business areas.

Climate change and stormwater improvements

Later Monday night, the City Council adopted a resolution declaring a climate emergency that threatens the city.

With the council calling on the mayor’s administration to develop plans to address the crisis, the mayor’s proposed federal aid budget includes $1.5 million for a “climate risk assessment” and an update of the city’s urban forestry master plan. The plan also includes $13.5 million to address stormwater and drainage issues in areas of the city where flooding is a frequent issue.

Task force recommends civilian oversight of Richmond police to City Council

Less than a week after the nation’s largest monument to the Confederacy was removed from its place of prominence in Richmond following last summer’s racial justice protests, the City Council heard from the task force it appointed to address calls for policing reform.

The task force has recommended civilian oversight for the Richmond Police Department that looks little like other review boards in the state.

The co-chairs of the task force, Angela Fontaine and Eli Coston, presented a condensed version of their recommendations at Monday’s informal council meeting. The task force wrote a 35-page report detailing its proposal, which was provided to the City Council on Aug. 31.

“This report recommends establishing an office of Community Oversight and Police Accountability, a body of police oversight that is tailored to fit the needs of our community and be successful in the City of Richmond, while also complying with local and state law,” the report read.

Coston said the task force’s goal isn’t to overhaul the police department’s internal process for dealing with misbehavior, but to address some of the issues with it. Civilians and officers alike told the task force that the complaint process lacks transparency and is often unresponsive.

The new city department suggested by the task force would have an 11-member civilian review board to hear complaints of officer misconduct and dole out discipline. The recommendations call for a $1.2 million annual budget to cover staffing costs for more than five investigators who look into complaints, an auditor who monitors patterns and trends in police data, a policy analyst who recommends changes to police procedures, and an executive director to run it all. The budget also covers outside legal, mediation and support services for the new department.

Though none of the nine elected officials fully backed the plan Monday, several council members applauded the efforts of the task force. Council President Cynthia Newbille, who represents the 7th District, and Councilman Michael Jones, of the 9th District, both called the task force’s efforts “monumental.”

Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, representing the 2nd District, appeared supportive as she committed to “work toward implementation.”

But 3rd District Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert was dubious and wanted to discuss the report further.

“I have some concerns about some of these recommendations,” said Lambert, one of the council’s newest members.

In June, Lambert tweeted: “The question is should we scrap the board and start over?” following a particularly contentious meeting after which one task force member resigned when he, a white man, was called out for dominating the meetings and talking over Black women. Lambert followed the tweet with a series of hashtags: #ThisOccurredBeforeMyTerm #InterviewBoardMembers #YouNeedAPoliceRep #GotSolutions #TheLastCRBMtgWasAHotMess.

It’s unclear if, or when, the council will take up the recommendations. The matter was referred to the public safety standing committee, which meets later this month.

Jones was one of the original patrons of the ordinance establishing the task force; ultimately seven of the nine council members at the time signed on to it. He asked about the task force’s research into best practices and other CRBs across the country “to show that we’re not creating something in a silo, and we’re not creating something that isn’t out there.”

“We might be,” Fontaine said. “We’re creating something newer.”

She and Coston added that they had researched about 225 other oversight boards and found “what works and what doesn’t work” to create a body that is responsive to Richmond’s needs.

The recommendations from the Task Force on the Establishment of a Civilian Review Board, as it’s formally called in the ordinance passed in July 2020 while protests were still occurring daily, far exceed the scope of any existing review board in the state, according to the 35-page final report. A new state law passed in the wake of last year’s racial justice protests allows for broader powers.

Only about a fifth of civilian oversight bodies across the country have the ability to investigate complaints independent of the police department. Most boards or panels, including those in Charlottesville, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach, review only their respective police department’s internal affairs investigations. And none in the state has the power to make binding disciplinary decisions, according to the task force report.

“Jurisdictions that track whether the Chief of Police imposes the disciplinary determinations of Internal Affairs versus the civilian oversight body, Internal Affairs findings are followed more often than the civilian oversight body,” the task force found.

State law enacted another power that the task force recommends: the ability to subpoena testimony from officers and civilians. No other oversight body in the state can do this, the report said. Subpoena power was something the City Council required the task force to include. It’s also a power endorsed by Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Gerald M. Smith.

Both have said they are supportive of a civilian review board, but it’s unclear where they stand on the recommendations from the task force.

The task force presented its recommendations less than a week after the state-owned statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue was removed, a move that was largely seen as symbolic of the progress to come. During public comment at Monday’s formal council meeting, Richmond activist Allan-Charles Chipman called the removal a “mass distraction.”

“Let us truly defy the racial terror and dominance of Robert E. Lee’s legacy and excavate the institutions that truly serve as the time capsules for his values,” he said. “Please support a robust, fully funded and independent civilian review board and work with the community and task force to replace the monument of tyranny with a living monument of expanded democracy, justice and transparency.”