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Supreme Court showdown set over pipeline crossing of Appalachian Trail

The stage is set for a high-stakes showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed crossing of the Appalachian Trail.

The court agreed on Friday to hear an appeal of a decision by a Richmond-based federal appeals court last year. That court revoked the permit the U.S. Forest Service issued to allow a partnership led by Dominion Energy to build the proposed natural gas pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail between Augusta and Nelson counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that the Forest Service did not have authority to allow the $7.75 billion pipeline to cross beneath the trail at a critical chokepoint for the 600-mile project to link shale gas wells in West Virginia with energy markets in southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina.

Dominion hailed the court’s decision to hear the appeal as “a clear path forward to resolve this important issue,” while environmental groups promised to continue their fight against construction of “a dangerous, costly, and unnecessary project.”

The company said it expects the Supreme Court to hear arguments early next year and rule by June.

Led by Dominion and Duke Energy, the company contends that “long-standing precedent” allows pipelines to cross the 2,000-mile national scenic trail, but the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, says past crossings were made primarily on state or private lands, or under previous federal law.

Construction of the pipeline, first proposed five years ago, already is more than two years behind schedule and almost $3 billion over budget in large part because of rulings by the 4th Circuit that have vacated federal permits for the project.

Dominion is asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reissue a permit that the 4th Circuit vacated last year because of inadequate analysis of the project’s likely effect on endangered or threatened animal species in its path. The company stopped work on the project in December after the appeals court vacated the biological opinion the agency approved.

The 4th Circuit ruling on the Appalachian Trail crossing prompted the company to adopt a new strategy to build the pipeline first from Buckingham County, where it would intersect with an existing interstate natural gas pipeline at a planned gas compressor station, to the Atlantic coast.

Environmental groups have appealed the state air quality permit for the compressor station, which they contend poses unfair risks to a historically African American community at Union Hill.

The rest of the project would depend on the Supreme Court or an act of Congress to allow construction of the pipeline on federal lands beneath the Appalachian Trail.

“A favorable resolution of the Appalachian Trail case will allow us to resume full construction by next summer and complete the project by late 2021,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said.

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is more important now than ever,” Ruby said. “The economic vitality, environmental health and energy security of our region depend on it.”

The company was joined in the appeal by U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and 16 attorneys general, led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and Sierra Club promised to “defend the lower court’s decision in this case.”

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dangerous, costly and unnecessary project and we won’t stand by while Duke and Dominion Energy try to force it on our public lands, threatening people’s health, endangered species, iconic landscapes and clean water along the way,” they said in a statement on Friday.


MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Tomashi Jackson’s “Monuments of Color (Red, Black and Green)” is part of the “Great Force” exhibition at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond. The show, which opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 5, explores the reality of race through paintings, sculpture, photography, video and performance art. The ICA held a preview Friday.


Local
Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission to hold first of six work sessions Saturday

With a December deadline inching closer, a Richmond City Council-appointed citizen panel will set to work Saturday on its review of the $1.5 billion proposal to reshape downtown around a new arena.

The Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission will hold the first of six scheduled public work sessions from 9 a.m. to noon at the Richmond Police Training Academy, 1202 W. Graham Road.

The session will mark the start of three months of technical vetting and feedback-gathering the commission must distill into a set of recommendations for the council by Dec. 23, said Pierce Homer, its chairman.

“In any project of this size, there are significant risks for contractors, for developers, for the city, for taxpayers, and we want to identify those in a systematic way,” Homer said.

The council formed the nine-member commission last December, as it appeared Mayor Levar Stoney would unveil in short order the plans to redevelop a swath of publicly owned real estate that his administration received from NH District Corp., the developer led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. Negotiations dragged on for eight more months, however. Stoney released the plans in August.

The council has since rejected a proposed voter referendum on the use of tax dollars for the project and appointed a public supporter of NH District Corp.’s plans — Virginia Union University President Hakim J. Lucas — to the citizen commission that is reviewing them. Some on the council said his appointment would harm the credibility of the panel.

The citizen commission is one part of the council’s multipronged review of what could be the biggest economic development deal in city history.

The proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena, the largest in the state; a high-rise hotel with at least 525 rooms; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the area.

After Saturday’s meeting, the commission has five other work sessions scheduled. All are open to the public.

  • Oct. 19, 9 a.m. to noon, Richmond Police Training Academy.
  • Nov. 2, 9 a.m. to noon, location to be announced.
  • Nov. 16, 9 a.m. to noon, Southside Community Service Center, 4100 Hull Street Road.
  • Nov. 30, 9 a.m. to noon, location to be announced.
  • Dec. 14, 9 a.m. to noon, location to be announced.

The commission will hold a public comment period at each meeting. Additionally, the commission will hold public hearings across the city in December to gather additional feedback.

Homer said the panel may issue a set of draft recommendations prior to those hearings, which are not yet scheduled, so residents can weigh in on them directly.

In addition to the commission’s work, the City Council has scheduled additional meetings of its own to discuss the project. Late last month, the council also issued a formal solicitation for a consultant to conduct a separate review. It set aside $190,000 for the effort. The deadline for firms to apply is Oct. 17.


Dems subpoena White House for trove of documents on Ukraine

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Restaurant-news
'Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers': New campaign seeks to raise awareness about Virginia's restaurants - and maybe change some laws in the process

It’s no secret that Virginians love their restaurants, but now the state tourism agency and a Virginia restaurant trade organization have joined together to make it official with a new campaign: “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers.”

The slogan draws on the 50-year-old “Virginia is for Lovers” brand and aims to raise awareness about the restaurants in Virginia and their importance to local and state economies.

The restaurant industry in Virginia generates $18.1 billion each year, and its 14,000 restaurants are responsible for more than 378,000 jobs representing 9% of employment in the state, according to data from the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association trade group. By comparison, agriculture, the state’s largest private industry, has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“People travel from all over to experience food and drink in Virginia,” Rita McClenny, president of the Virginia Tourism Corp., said at the brand launch event Wednesday at the Vagabond restaurant in downtown Richmond. “The focus and goal is to increase restaurant visitation in Virginia — and visitation to Virginia.”

Jack Berry, president of Richmond Region Tourism, echoed that sentiment, adding that 30 percent of travel decisions are made with food and drink options in mind.

Still, the restaurant business is competitive. In the Richmond area, the restaurant market has grown at twice the pace of the population in recent years, according to recent reporting from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Richmond area saw a nearly 10% increase in the number of restaurants added in the past four years while the population growth in the same period was just over 4%.

“The restaurant business is a tough business,” said Lester Johnson, owner of Mama J’s Kitchen and Vagabond. “Richmond is a tough place to be a restaurant owner.”

Johnson said he appreciates efforts to help the industry and its owners.

For Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association trade organization, helping the operators is a key part of the “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” campaign.

“One of our goals for this campaign is to build more restaurant collaboration through membership in the VRLTA to benefit the industry as a whole, which will lead to increased advocacy at the state and local levels, workforce resources and of course customers,” Terry said.

He cited working with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to make the licensing process a little easier, addressing labor shortages, and working against an elimination of tipped wages as key goals for the organization.

“There were dozens of bills filed last [state legislative] session to raise minimum wage, eliminate tipped wage, predictive scheduling requirements, etc.,” Terry said. “In the Senate, a minimum wage bill was killed by one.”

The elimination of tipped wages could hurt the full-service restaurant industry, Terry said, as 70% of those employees at those restaurants rely on tips. A tipped wage is an amount below the federal minimum wage that employers such as restaurants are allowed to pay their workers if the workers also receive tips.

But the legislative portion is to come. To start, “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” will be rolling out a series of launch events in 2020 to celebrate the campaign. Visit virginiaisforrestaurantlovers.com for details.


Plus
Henrico judge rules that California Rep. Nunes' lawsuit against Twitter can be heard in Virginia

A California congressman’s lawsuit filed against Twitter earlier this year will be allowed to proceed in Virginia, a Henrico County Circuit Court judge ruled this week.

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is suing Twitter, a political strategist and two anonymously run parody accounts that use his name for $250 million for allegedly defaming him. The lawsuit says Twitter allowed a former Arlington County resident and former strategist to Republican politicians to coordinate an online smear campaign against him as part of a politically motivated conspiracy.

On Wednesday, Circuit Judge John Marshall signed a letter denying the San Francisco-based social media company’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that it should be tried in California instead.

“The Plaintiff came from California to Virginia to pursue claims that arose in Virginia against Defendants who were in Virginia,” Marshall’s letter says. “The causes of action in this case are interdependent and for the other reasons in this opinion the court will not dismiss the action against Twitter” on claims of inconvenience.

The lawsuit alleges that the accounts @Devin NunesMom and @Devin Cow, which are named as parties to the suit, attacked and disparaged Nunes, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with false claims.

There are more than a dozen other parody accounts on Twitter that claim to be family members of Nunes or farm animals belonging to him.

Several tweets attached to the complaint centered on Nunes’ involvement in a House investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and his stake in a Napa Valley winery that was the subject of a Fresno Bee newspaper article that included allegations that its owners used cocaine and prostitutes to entice investors.

Nunes has also filed suit against The McClatchy Co. — which owns the Fresno Bee and several newspapers across the nation — in Albemarle County.

While McClatchy does not operate any newspapers in Virginia, Nunes’ attorney has argued in court filings that it conducts business in Virginia and has a stake in a Charlottesville-based company, Moonlighting. The complaint against Twitter in Henrico makes similar claims, and notes that one of its registered agents lives in Glen Allen.

Several legal experts said earlier this year that they suspect Nunes may have filed the suits in Virginia because its statutes meant to protect journalists and citizens from costly litigation unlikely to succeed are weaker than those in other states.

A hearing in the Henrico court case has yet to be scheduled.