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Senate panel advances the first of Northam-backed gun bills

In the first fight over gun rights in the new-look General Assembly, Democrats on Monday advanced several gun control measures.

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a one-handgun-a-month limit, universal background checks, a “red flag” law and giving municipal officials more local authority on guns. The bills now head to the full Senate.

All four ideas approved Monday are part of the Northam administration’s eight-part control package. Besides those eight, which include additional measures such as a requirement to report lost and stolen firearms and banning people with a restraining order against them from possessing a firearm, the administration isn’t taking a position on other gun control bills.

“For the first time in decades, common sense gun safety measures are finally advancing in the Virginia legislature,” Northam tweeted after the committee’s meeting. “This is the first step in the process — Virginians are demanding real action on gun violence, and they are watching.”

The committee, meeting in a room evenly split with proponents and opponents of gun control, approved each measure in 9-5 party-line votes. Some in the audience wore yellow “Background checks save lives” stickers while others wore orange “Guns save lives” stickers.

The committee’s endorsements come after Democrats on Friday banned guns in the state Capitol and the nearby Pocahontas Building, a move that led to long lines to gain entry into the buildings Monday morning.

The one-handgun-a-month law was in place from 1993 until 2012, when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a repeal law. Proponents say it would help limit the number of guns that end up on the black market and used in crimes in other cities, such as New York.

“This legislation would help to curtail handgun trafficking,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, patron of Senate Bill 69.

Opponents said the bill limits law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights.

“Individuals should not be limited in the amount of firearms they choose to defend themselves and their family with,” said D.J. Spiker, the National Rifle Association’s Virginia state director.

The panel also advanced a measure on universal background checks, just not in its original form.

The committee backed Sen. Louise Lucas’ Senate Bill 70, but substituted language to say the background checks would apply only to gun sales and not transfers, a change Lucas and the Northam administration opposed.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who proposed the new language, said he was open to revisiting it.

“This is the beginning of a process,” he said.

The bill that met the most objections — gun proponents in the audience criticized all four measures — was a red flag law. Senate Bill 240 proposed by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, would remove firearms, through a legal warrant, from a person deemed “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others” through what is called an “extreme risk protective order.” Opponents of the bill say it could lead to unconstitutional searches of homes.

“If this law is to pass, it’ll be a time when you’ve not been accused of a criminal offense, you’ve not invited somebody to come to your house, there’s been no allegation of criminal activity, and whether you live in rural Virginia or downtown Richmond or downtown Norfolk, the government will come in and be able to search your house and you’ve not been accused — or alleged — to have committed any criminal offense,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. “Every Virginian should be afraid.”

Red flag laws are in place in 17 states.

Dinwiddie County resident Richard Pyle called the bill “an affront to everything our Bill of Rights stands for.” Dinwiddie, along with 124 other counties, cities and towns in the state, has declared itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” something Attorney General Mark Herring said has no legal effect.

The final bill in the package taken up Monday was a measure by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. Senate Bill 35, which incorporated similar bills proposed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, as part of Northam’s package, would allow individual localities to ban guns in public buildings and at parks and permitted events.

“We support the ability of localities to pass reasonable constitutional restrictions on firearms,” said Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran.

The issue was central leading up to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when protesters were allowed to carry guns.

Opponents of the measure, however, said it could endanger law-abiding citizens who wouldn’t be able to protect themselves.

“The last thing we need are more gun-free zones,” said Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins.

At the patron’s request, the committee on Monday also struck an assault weapons ban introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Saslaw’s Senate Bill 16 — which was not among the bills Northam backs — didn’t include a “grandfather” provision for current owners of weapons deemed assault weapons, prompting concerns from gun rights supporters about confiscation. Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, is the House sponsor of the legislation the governor backs, House Bill 961.

Gun control supporters praised the bills the committee backed Monday. Others said the measures were “ill-conceived.”

“We are one step closer to a Virginia where the threat of gun violence is no longer present in the minds of residents,” said Molly Voigt, the state legislative manager for Giffords, an advocacy group started by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt in Arizona, and her husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

Said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham: “[The bills] do not make Virginians safer.”

Before legislators could debate the merits of the gun bills, they had to first enter the building, a task that proved time-consuming for many on Monday.

Credentialed lobbyists, media and staff members who previously weren’t subject to search now have to go through metal detectors as part of the new rules the Joint Rules Committee approved last week. Lawmakers are exempt from search.

The long lines caused by the change led House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to ask Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, to “quickly revisit how to best implement your new policy.”

Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka said it is adding an “express lane” in the Pocahontas Building for people with credentials from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The line is for people with no bags, he said, and they will be hand-wanded. Macenka said earlier Monday that Capitol Police are asking those entering the Pocahontas Building to “do whatever possible to limit the number of items they bring.”

On the House floor, Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, argued that Democrats blindsided Republicans with a policy to “disarm law-abiding citizens.” Freitas challenged statements from Democratic leaders last week that the policy came at the recommendation of Capitol Police.

“Don’t try to pass it off as it was Capitol Police’s idea,“ Freitas said. “Don’t try to find scapegoats.”

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said in turn: “The policy to ban guns from this chamber and from this building was our idea, and we think it’s a good one.”

Even with the Capitol gun ban, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, continued carrying a gun Monday.

Last year she wore a holstered .38-caliber revolver while presenting her bills in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and subsequently on the Senate floor. She called the ban instituted last week “unconstitutional.”

“I’m following both the U.S. and Virginia Constitution today, the same one I swore to uphold last Wednesday so help me God,” she said, referring to last week’s swearing-in.

It is unclear when the full Senate will take up the gun control bills the panel endorsed Monday.

CoStar Group eyes expansion as part of $1.5B Navy Hill project

Two thousand more jobs could come to downtown as part of the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plans, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced Monday.

CoStar Group, a commercial real estate analytics firm, is in talks with the project’s developers to lease an office tower that would rise north of City Hall if the plans move forward. The office would be home to 2,000 new jobs the company would add over a five-year period, said Andrew C. Florance, CoStar Group’s CEO.

“We believe in the potential of the Navy Hill project and that it could provide an ideal solution for our company’s future growth here in Richmond,” Florance said at a news conference called by Stoney.

Florance later added: “If there wasn’t an opportunity to do the Navy Hill project, we would still work to try and find a solution, but this seems like a very compelling solution to us.”

The announcement highlighted a flurry of news Stoney shared at Monday’s news conference as his signature project inched closer to a final vote that the council scheduled for next month.

CoStar Group has a Richmond office in the WestRock building on Fifth Street, but that space could not accommodate its expansion, Florance said. The Washington-based company is working to reach an agreement for 400,000 square feet of office space next to the proposed arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum. The project’s developer, NH District Corp., touted the talks as proof its plans will spur growth in the area.

“CoStar is looking very seriously at coming here as well to this part of the city, only because Navy Hill will be here,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman of the NH Foundation board and CEO of Dominion Energy.

The Stoney administration has said the economic development project would create 9,300 permanent jobs downtown. CoStar’s expansion would add to that figure.

The Navy Hill proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 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.

Stoney said Monday that he wants to address concerns that have surfaced about the project as it has gone through the council’s review process. His administration will pursue a series of amendments to the plans he negotiated over 18 months.

The Virginia General Assembly will consider a newly introduced bill that would allow Richmond to keep state sales tax revenue the project would generate. Stoney said that sales tax revenue could help the city reduce “by more than half” the size of a special tax zone on which the project’s financing relies.

Proposing that bill is Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. Bourne received $22,000 in donations from Dominion Energy, as well as a $2,500 donation from Farrell, while up for re-election last year against a Libertarian challenger, a race Bourne won with over 88% of the vote. He said those donations did not influence his decision to carry the legislation, which he has said is “not an endorsement” of a project he has not vetted.

Opponents of the development plans questioned whether Bourne’s employment posed a conflict of interest. Bourne is general counsel for The Branch Group, a Roanoke-based firm that was listed as a collaborator in the initial proposal NH District Corp. sent to the city in February 2018. A spokesperson for NH District Corp. said last week that Branch is no longer involved with the plans, and hasn’t been since the end of 2018.

When Stoney introduced the project in August, he proposed an 80-block zone bounded by First Street, 10th Street, Interstate 95/64 and Byrd Street. The size of the zone, called a tax increment financing district, or TIF, has become a major stumbling block for some on the council. A citizen commission that reviewed the plan suggested reducing the district’s size in a report issued last month.

All future real estate tax revenue within the zone, either from new construction or natural assessment growth, would go to pay down the project’s bonds. A smaller zone would mean less city real estate tax revenue would be obligated to paying off debt for the project. Those dollars would otherwise flow to the city’s general fund, which is used to pay for such basic services as schools and road maintenance.

Stoney said a separate amendment will pledge a higher percentage of affordable housing units in the development’s footprint. That change is necessary to comply with a council policy requiring that 15% of the project’s apartments be reserved for people earning less than the area’s median income. As originally proposed, the plans did not meet that threshold.

Stoney also said the developers are studying an alternate location for the proposed GRTC transfer station on Broad Street. That location is the city-owned parking lot on East Broad Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, said Susan Eastridge, a developer working with NH District Corp. on the project.

As originally proposed, the transfer station would rise on a city-owned parking lot bounded by Ninth, 10th, Leigh and Clay streets. GRTC officials have expressed reservations about the site and overhead costs associated with leasing and operating it. The existing transfer station is on North Ninth Street.

Stoney said the amendments signified his willingness to work with the council to reach a compromise on the plans. Joining him at the news conference were Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District and Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District. Whether the changes will sway council members who are skeptical of the project is unclear. Seven of the nine council members must vote for the plans for them to move forward.

Said Stoney, “This is what it means to do the hard work of ensuring that the community’s voices are heard.”

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Local leaders back proposed Richmond region transportation authority. Tax hikes would raise millions for projects.

The Richmond region finally is asking the state for the power to make regional decisions about transportation improvements and to raise taxes to pay for them.

Seven years after Virginia approved regional transportation funding for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, many local government leaders in the Richmond area are throwing their support behind the creation of the Central Virginia Transportation Authority under legislation that would raise wholesale fuel and sales taxes in nine localities in the region.

“As a region, this is our moment in time,” said Henrico County Supervisor Frank Thornton, who hailed “a new collegiality” among local government leaders in the region in support of improved transportation networks, including public transit.

House Bill 1541, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, new chair of the House Transportation Committee, would raise taxes by 2.1% on wholesale fuels, or 7.6 cents per gallon for gasoline, and 0.7% on sales and use. The bill would raise those taxes in Richmond; the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City; and the town of Ashland.

The higher taxes would raise an estimated $168 million a year, with half of the money returned to the localities to use for critical transportation projects; 35% allocated to a new authority governed by a 16-member board representing all of the localities as well as state and regional organizations; and 15% to GRTC Transit System, a regional bus company currently financed primarily by Richmond and Henrico, with some funding from Chesterfield, which is its co-owner.

McQuinn said the dedicated funding is critical to improving access to public transportation, especially for low-income residents who have no other way to get to jobs or amenities in the region.

“Transportation has become to me almost a civil rights issue,” she said in an informal meeting Monday with leaders from four localities in the region.

Under the plan, GRTC would receive $25 million in new tax revenues, in addition to no less than half of its current local funding, to boost its annual budget to about $37 million, with support for the first time from all localities in the region.

Some transportation advocates oppose the proposed 50% reduction in current local funding for GRTC that the legislation would allow, saying they want the new funding to be on top of current local funding levels. “This is unacceptable,” wrote Ross Catrow, executive director of RVA Rapid Transit, in blog posting Sunday about the legislation. “New transit money should pay for new transit service.

“Remember, the Richmond region funds public transportation less than any of its peer cities from across the country, and using this once-in-a-generation opportunity to maintain the unacceptable status quo would be a huge mistake,” Catrow said.

Reducing local support for GRTC “certainly was not the intent” of the legislation, said Richmond City Council President Cynthia Newbille, who called regional transportation funding a top legislative priority for the city this year.

Instead, if the legislation becomes law on July 1, Henrico said it would become a full member of the GRTC board of directors and pay about $5 million more each year to the transit company than it does now as a customer for bus service.

“If we’re going to provide a dedicated source of funding to GRTC for the first time as a region, then the whole region needs to participate in the structure,” Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said in an interview Monday.

Local government leaders say the legislation would raise money they could use to fund critical transportation improvements — widening state Route 288 and improving important interchanges in Goochland, Henrico and Chesterfield counties, for example. Currently, local leaders say their localities don’t have the matching funds required to receive state funding of major projects on state highways.

“Today, we are at a competitive disadvantage because we can’t leverage any of the state dollars because we don’t have the matching funds,” Goochland County Administrator John Budesky said Monday.

For Richmond, the money would allow the city to make long-needed repairs to its roads and sidewalks, and fix bridges near newly revitalized neighborhoods such as Scott’s Addition and Manchester.

“Our roads go from poor to good,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said.

Henrico says it has about $650 million in high-priority transportation projects, from improvements to West Broad Street in Short Pump to making Williamsburg Road safer for pedestrians in the county’s eastern portion.

Chesterfield’s wish list tops $2 billion, including improvements to Interstate 95 interchanges in Chester and at Willis Road, an Ashland-to-Petersburg pedestrian trail, and revitalizing the historic Ettrick train station.

“Everybody gets something they’re happy with,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who predicted the legislation would be “transformative for the region.”

Chesterfield County Administrator Joe Casey said the state cannot fund necessary transportation improvements without regional help, especially in the face of diminishing state fuel tax revenues because of electric and fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles.

“The state, they’ve tried to fund transportation,” Casey said. “They’ve tried to keep up. They can’t.”

Local leaders in the region say they have learned from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which have used money raised through regional taxes allowed under a sweeping state transportation funding bill in 2013 to pay for critical improvements to major highways, including Interstate 64 east of Richmond.

“That’s why they’re getting things done,” said former Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who wanted to include the Richmond region in the 2013 funding legislation he helped to write. “We could have been getting things done as well.”

Henrico and other localities didn’t support the regional initiative then because, as then-Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, said, “We’re not playing that well together right now.”

The leaders of the region’s “Big 3” jurisdictions say collaboration has replaced confrontation.

“The players have changed,” said Stoney, whose predecessor, Mayor Dwight Jones, had a tense relationship with the neighboring counties.

Henrico Board Chairman Tyrone Nelson said, “We’ve built relationships.”

Those relationships have paid off in the past six weeks, Casey said, as localities have worked together on the legislation to determine how to use proposed higher taxes “for the good of the collective region.”

Pamunkey sign land deal with Norfolk for potential casino

As lawmakers prepare to debate the future of casino gaming in Virginia, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe has staked its claim in a high-profile site along the Elizabeth River in Norfolk.

The tribe said Monday that it had signed agreements with Norfolk for an option to buy 13.4 acres next to the Harbor Park minor league baseball stadium and develop a commercial resort and casino there, if Virginia legalizes casino gambling on the site.

“The signing of these agreements makes it official. We are partners with Norfolk to bring a world-class resort and casino to the region,” said Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray. “We can’t wait to get started.”

The tribe will have to wait for the General Assembly to decide not only whether to legalize casinos but, if so, to decide where and under what terms. It’s likely to be one of the most contentious and high-spending policy debates of the 60-day session.

The Pamunkey tribe isn’t the only one betting on the opportunity to jump into the casino business in a state that has never allowed it. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians announced last week that it is partnering with a Tennessee developer to build a casino and resort in Washington County.

The Eastern Cherokee want to build the project about a mile from the site of another casino proposed in Bristol, which is one of five cities, including Norfolk, where state lawmakers said last year that they would consider allowing casino gaming.

However, the Pamunkey are the only tribe with federal gaming rights in Virginia, giving them the option of seeking a casino through the new system that the Virginia Lottery would likely oversee or through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Norfolk City Council voted in September to give City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer authority to negotiate an agreement with the Pamunkey for an option to purchase the undeveloped, city-owned site.

The three-year agreement includes two more one-year options and requires the tribe to pay the city $100,000 a year for the property, valued at more than $10 million. The purchase is contingent on the tribe receiving approval for commercial gaming on the site.

The tribe said the Pamunkey Resort & Casino would include a convention hotel, restaurants, a spa, an entertainment venue, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The Pamunkey had previously considered locating a casino in New Kent County.