Virginia localities ready to remove Confederate monuments might soon have the authority to do so.
On Monday, a Senate committee voted along party lines to advance local control legislation that conservative lawmakers have steadfastly blocked in recent years. With Democrats now in control of both chambers of the General Assembly, the idea of letting localities decide whether they wish to remove or alter the war memorials in their jurisdictions is gaining momentum.
“Local control to remove is going to happen,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack. “It’s just a question of the process.”
Calls to remove monuments to the Confederacy surged across the South after a Confederate sympathizer massacred nine black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, accelerating a debate that intensified in Virginia after the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017.
That day, a white nationalist who’d attended the protest against removing Confederate statues drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman.
Localities eager to debate the issue have run up against state law protecting war memorials from removal and vandalism. Last month, the Richmond City Council voted 6-2 to ask the assembly for the authority to remove the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. Opponents of the legislation say clearing a path for changes would be akin to the destruction of history.
In presenting her version of the bill, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said permitting the removal of the statues would allow localities to stop honoring Lost Cause mythology.
“These portrayals of Confederate leadership as grand and heroic figures misinforms the public; distorts our understanding of our history; and attempts to gloss over the oppression and injustice the subjects fought a war ... to perpetuate,” she said.
Lawmakers on Monday consolidated three proposals and voted 8-7 to advance a bill featuring an amendment Lewis proposed that would require localities wishing to remove or alter a war memorial to undergo a state study.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to debate whether localities should meet certain conditions, such as the state study or approval by more than a simple majority, before removing any war memorials.
Andrew Bennett Morehead, a spokesman for the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the heritage group is adamantly opposed to any change in the law, but is giving consideration to how the legislation can be shaped.
After Monday’s Senate Local Government Committee hearing, he said the group appreciates that Lewis had submitted papers to require further study by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources before localities can remove a memorial.
“It gives true heritage organizations the opportunity to form a game plan for the best way to ... put these monuments on private property and remain there in perpetuity,” Morehead said.
While the bill could bring sweeping changes to the landscape in Richmond and elsewhere in Virginia, the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue is owned by the state. It would not be subject to local control.
The committee hearing was well attended by Charlottesville residents with a connection to the white nationalist rally there in 2017. Among them was Kristin Szakos, a former Charlottesville City Council member who voted in 2017 to remove a statue of Lee from a local park.
Szakos voiced opposition during the hearing to Lewis’ amendment, telling lawmakers that Charlottesville undertook its own study before the council voted 3-2 for removal.
“To force Charlottesville and other cities into a long, protracted process now would not only delay justice, but could further endanger the lives of our leaders and citizens,” she said, noting that she and other city officials began receiving violent threats from people opposed to statue removal.
A Charlottesville circuit judge last month ordered the city to pay $365,000 for plaintiffs’ legal fees after Charlottesville lost a lawsuit that opponents of removal brought against the city.
A spokesman for the plaintiffs in that case, Charlottesville-based lawyer Charles Weber, said in a recent statement that the plaintiffs oppose granting local control and fear changing the law could lead to the removal of memorials to Vietnam War veterans.
“Stripping these war memorials from the public square will not improve race relations or the lives of anyone in the community,” he said. “Instead, doing so will simply break faith with military veterans everywhere and alienate many Virginians who understand our history and work constructively to promote justice in our communities.”
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, condemned the violence that arose in Charlottesville, and said she prefers erecting new monuments to removing old ones.
“I think correcting that narrative is better than destroying it. I think we’re better than that,” she said. “And I’m going to say to localities: The reason that people came to Charlottesville is because a decision was made, not because a monument was there.”
Lisa Draine, the mother of a University of Virginia student who was injured in the vehicle attack that day, fought back tears Monday as she described the injuries her daughter suffered.
“These statues are not benign. They are magnets for hate and violence,” she said. “I’m asking you to stand up to people who say this is about heritage and legacy. I’m asking you to think about your legacy and to protect children in the future.”
A proposed legislative deal would let five Virginia cities pick their own resort casino operator — with Richmond getting to choose between two operators — and Colonial Downs Group could add up to 2,500 slotlike machines in compensation for increased competition with its Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, multiple sources have told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The proposed agreement, negotiated by casino interests, localities and legislators, is expected to be introduced as substitute legislation on Tuesday, when special gaming subcommittees are scheduled to consider an array of competing casino proposals in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The agreement would create a “local choice” licensing system that the Virginia Lottery Board would administer, rather than an open statewide or regional competition. Instead, five cities — Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol — each would be allowed to choose a company to invest at least $250 million to develop a casino, subject to local voter referendums and oversight by the lottery.
Under the proposed agreement for local option gaming, Richmond could choose only between Colonial Downs and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe for a potential casino resort in the city. Colonial Downs already operates a Rosie’s gaming parlor on Midlothian Turnpike in South Richmond, and the Pamunkey tribe recently announced plans for a $350 million casino on Ingram Avenue at Commerce Road in South Side.
Under the proposed bargain, Colonial Downs would be able to add 600 historical horse racing machines at its Rosie’s locations for each casino operation approved by local voters, with a cap of an additional 2,500 machines statewide. The company already operates 2,150 machines, which look like slot machines but operate on historical horse racing results — 700 each in Richmond and Hampton, 600 in New Kent and 150 in Vinton, in Roanoke County.
The payoff for the state would be a tiered tax rate ranging from 15% to 28% of annual gaming revenues. The tax rate would be structured in two tiers — one for capital investments between $250 million and $350 million, and the other for investments over $350 million. The tax rates would increase with the volume of gaming revenues.
The localities that host the casinos would get a share of the taxes collected — ranging from 5% to 7% — as total gaming revenues increase.
The Pamunkey already have negotiated a deal with Norfolk for a $700 million casino resort along the Elizabeth River. That area, like Richmond, is considered part of the tribe’s ancestral lands and subject to its gaming rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Under the agreement with Norfolk, the tribe would develop a casino under the commercial gaming process the state adopts. In Richmond, the Pamunkey say they have the option of developing a casino under either commercial or federal gaming rights.
“The tribe remains committed to building a destination resort casino in Norfolk and in Richmond, and this bill allows them to do that,” spokesman Jay Smith said Monday. “The difference from other developers is the tribe is not doing gaming for the sake of profits. They’re doing gaming to improve the lives of their tribe and their communities.”
Bristol and Portsmouth also have reached agreements with casino operators, and Danville is actively soliciting potential partners for a casino resort there.
The five cities were designated as potential casino sites — based on demographic criteria such as poverty and unemployment rates and population loss — under legislation adopted last year, subject to re-enactment by the General Assembly in this legislative session. The new proposal would substitute for bills offered by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, to re-enact last year’s legislation.
The arrangement adopted last year has come under attack from potential rivals, including a casino resort proposed by the Eastern Cherokee Indian Band in Washington County, just outside Bristol city limits. The project would be less than a mile from the resort that the city has designated for a casino that two local businessmen would develop on a former mall site and a Hard Rock Cafe would operate.
The Eastern Cherokee own a casino in western North Carolina that is operated by Caesar’s, but the tribe does not have federal gaming rights in Virginia, so it would rely on competition for commercial licenses if Virginia legalizes casino gambling and allows regional or statewide competition.
The tribe argues that a comprehensive study of gaming issues by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission last year proposed a competitive state framework for awarding licenses, based on a range of criteria.
Among the proposed criteria were recognition of the federal Indian gaming rights — in Virginia, only the Pamunkey tribe has them — and gaming operators that already have made substantial investment in operations in the state, as Colonial Downs has done.
Consequently, the proposed legislative deal would compensate Colonial Downs for potential loss of revenue at its five Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, including the horse track the company operates in New Kent County.
The JLARC study estimated that competition from casinos could reduce Colonial Downs’ gaming revenues by 45% and also diminish the purses for live horse racing, which resumed at the track late last summer.
However, the company also won voter approval last fall to open Rosie’s gaming parlors in Danville and Dumfries, a town in southern Prince William County. Currently, the company could install up to 150 machines in each location.
Colonial Downs is owned by Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, a national gaming company that owns and operates casinos. A larger operation in Dumfries would give the company a dominant position in Northern Virginia, which the JLARC study identified as the most lucrative potential site for casino gambling.
Under the proposed deal, however, Colonial Downs could not add machines within 35 miles of a city where casino gaming is approved.
The legislation would create a state framework for the lottery to certify proposed casino operators before the localities submit proposed projects to voters for referendum. The bill also would establish a system for the lottery to thoroughly vet and license them.
Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, who is chairman of the Senate gaming subcommittee, said Monday that the proposal attempts to “thread the needle” between local control and state oversight.
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A Senate panel rejected a bill Monday to raise the penalty for “recklessly” leaving a firearm near a minor, a blow to a package of gun control legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam is pitching.
Two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. Chap Petersen of Fairfax City and Creigh Deeds of Bath County, opposed the measure, which failed in an 8-7 vote.
Senate Bill 581, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would have made it a class 1 misdemeanor — punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of $2,500 — to leave a gun loaded or unlocked near a child under the age of 18.
Under current law, it is a class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, to “recklessly” leave such a loaded, unsecured weapon in a manner that endangers a child under the age of 14.
Howell amended the bill, lowering her proposed penalty from a class 6 felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. She also included language that broadly exempted hunting activities.
Petersen said he appreciated the changes but couldn’t support the bill, which he said could infringe upon family traditions.
“We’ve done a lot on gun legislation this session. But I think we’re starting to get more into intrafamily dynamics than we are into firearms,” Petersen said.
The House already passed a similar measure, though that bill includes no exception for hunting and carries the penalty of a class 6 felony. “We still have the House bill,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, minutes before the Senate subcommittee cast its vote.
Howell, as well as advocates from gun control and health groups, said the bill was mainly targeted at decreasing teen suicide rates.
“The goal is to try and prevent teen suicides. We’re averaging about 30 a year, that might be saved by this bill,” Howell said.
Dr. Barbara Boardman of the American Academy of Pediatrics said she supported increasing the age limit to 18, pushing back on gun rights advocates who argued for a lower age threshold of 16. “We see this as a suicide prevention bill,” she said.
D.J. Spiker, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, argued that current law already penalizes “reckless” behavior, and that increasing the penalty or applicable age would not result in safer households.
The Senate panel also approved legislation that would outlaw demonstrations by citizen militias that are intended to intimidate other citizens with brandished firearms.
“It’s born out of the violence we saw in Charlottesville in 2017, and a significant rise in hate violence, and the threat posed by trained and organized militia,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who introduced Senate Bill 64.
The bill cleared the committee on a 9-6 vote, without the support of the Republicans on the panel.
Lucas said citizen militias have posed as “so-called security forces” at events like the Unite the Right rally, the General Assembly’s July 9 special session on gun control and the Jan. 20 gun rights rally in Richmond. She said their presence heightens the risk of violence.
Lucas’ bill would make such a display a class 5 felony, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, said the bill would “have criminalized the rally on January 20, no doubt about it.”
“It is a very, very, very severe restriction on our First Amendment rights,” Stuart said.
Philip Van Cleave, whose gun rights group organized the Jan. 20 rally, told lawmakers that intent to intimidate is subjective.
“It’s a felony. It’s a big deal,” Van Cleave said. “Some people are easily intimidated.”
The office of Attorney General Mark Herring is backing the bill and said it “would be constitutional and would withstand an appeal if challenged.”
With a new report praising the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan in hand, a majority of the Richmond City Council doubled down on its opposition to the downtown redevelopment proposal on Monday.
In a signal that the economic development deal may officially die next week, a panel of the nine-member council recommended striking the project from its docket. The decision, on a 5-4 vote, came amid calls from opponents to scrap the deal and from supporters to salvage it.
“This is about faith in the people over the fear of what we have been put through for not rubber-stamping this deal,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman who joined four others on the council panel who recommended striking the ordinances. All members of the council sit on the panel, the organizational development standing committee.
Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District shot back: “At no time have I been a part of rubber-stamping anything.”
Supporting the recommendation were Gray, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District, Councilwoman Kristen Larson of the 4th District, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District and Councilwoman Reva Trammell of the 8th District.
Opposing it were Councilman Andreas Addison of the 1st District, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District, Newbille and Councilman Michael Jones of the 9th District.
Council members who voted against the recommendation said it was a deviation from the council’s process that would stifle public input as the council works to amend the deal before a final vote later this month.
The recommendation gives the council the option of quashing the project when it meets next Monday instead of conducting a final vote on Feb. 24, as it originally planned.
The vote came hours after the council received a favorable review of the project from a consultant it hired.
A Chicago-based consultant laid out strengths and weaknesses of the plan. Its preliminary report praised the arena-centered development that would bring a 500-room hotel without a subsidy and replace public infrastructure in the area on the developer’s dime.
“I think this can be, and would be, a world-class type of project,” said Charlie Johnson, president and CEO of C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., which the council paid $215,000 to review the proposal. “A lot of work has gone into this [project] by a lot of competent, professional people.”
The firm’s report did not soften the stance of the majority of the council or opponents of the project who spoke during a public hearing held Monday. They asked the council panel to strike the ordinances from its docket.
NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said the report made clear the council bloc should drop its opposition and return to the negotiating table.
“While we are still carefully studying this report, today’s presentation further demonstrates that the proposal is based on good principles and consistent with best practices, addresses significant deficiencies in the Richmond market today, and that the financing structure has been thoroughly vetted and is standard for a project of this nature,” said Jeff Kelley, a spokesman for Farrell’s group.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney echoed the developers in a statement.
“It’s time that council members come to the table and make this work,” he said.
The council recommendation came before an anticipated vote on a request for Stoney to scrap his signature proposal before a final vote slated in three weeks. Stoney has said he will not acquiesce. The resolution, while nonbinding, makes clear the plan lacks the seven votes required to win approval. The vote was set to take place late Monday night, after press time.
That resolution requests that the administration complete a small area plan, an appraisal of the city-owned land in the vicinity, and an assessment of the infrastructure. It requests that after taking those steps, Stoney issue a new solicitation for redevelopment of the area.
The resolution was introduced by the same five-member council bloc a week earlier.
The Navy Hill proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; 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.
C.H. Johnson’s report stated the public-private proposal was structured similarly to others the group has studied around the country. That structure would insulate the city from negative effects if the deal founders, Johnson said.
The financial assumptions that underpin the commercial development planned for the project are reasonable, the report stated. So are the assumptions for the proposed arena, though the consultant noted a major caveat: The developers estimated the new facility would host 181 events annually, between 40 and 54 more than comparable facilities.
The consultant did list several weaknesses of the plan, including an 80-block special tax zone that is integral to the project’s proposed financing. A Richmond delegate’s bill aimed at shrinking that zone by using state sales tax revenue for the project died Monday at the Virginia General Assembly for a second time.
Other weaknesses the consultant cited: the absence of an appraisal of the city-owned land that would change hands under the deal; and the lack of specific plans for the relocation of the Department of Social Services from Marshall Plaza, which would be demolished under the proposal, as well as the GRTC transfer center.
The consultant also questioned whether the city has the capacity to oversee a development of Navy Hill’s scope.
Said Johnson, “We’d like to see that sharpened and improved.”
Richmond police say they are investigating a number of incidents they believe may be connected to the shooting death of a 3-year-old boy in Hillside Court over the weekend, including a carjacking in which police have arrested a man.
Sharmar Hill Jr., 3, was playing outside in front of his family’s apartment in the 1700 block of Southlawn Avenue, neighbors said, when he was struck by gunfire Saturday afternoon.
Police said in a statement Monday that they had responded to the 1600 block of Rosecrest Avenue — just around the corner from where Sharmar was shot — three times late Friday and early Saturday for reports of random gunfire.
No injuries were reported from the earlier shooting reports, but police said a vehicle and doorway were damaged in Hillside Court, which is off Commerce Road in South Side.
The shooting that killed Sharmar occurred later Saturday, around 4:10 p.m., police said. The child was taken to a hospital, where he died.
On Friday, just before 10 p.m., officers were called to the 2400 block of Columbia Street for the carjacking. The area off Bellemeade Road is less than 2 miles south of Hillside Court. A driver for a ride-hailing service told police that two male customers brandished a firearm and robbed her of personal items in the 2600 block of Berwyn Street, another block south.
She fled on foot, and the two males drove away in her newer-model white Kia, police said. A white car was also seen fleeing the area after Sharmar was shot and after the reports of random gunfire.
Antonio L. Harris, 21, of the 1300 block of Evergreen Avenue, has been charged with carjacking and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Further charges are possible following consultation with the commonwealth’s attorney office, police said.
Harris lives about 3 miles west of the reported carjacking and shootings.
“The incidents of random gunfire from late Friday and early Saturday in the Hillside Court neighborhood ... are of interest to detectives in this homicide investigation,” police said. “Anyone with information about a possible suspect or vehicle are asked to contact detectives, as is anyone with further information about the carjacking or the homicide.”
Anyone with information should contact major crimes detective J. Fultz at (804) 646-3929 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.