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House backs assault weapons ban. Delegates passed all of Northam's gun control bills, but some faltered in Senate.

A bill to ban assault weapons under an expanded definition cleared the Virginia House on Tuesday, a victory for gun control activists and a setback for the thousands who protested in Richmond last month.

The bill is the eighth and final gun control measure pitched by Gov. Ralph Northam to clear the House, but parts of the package met defeat in the Senate.

House Bill 961, sponsored by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would ban possession of magazines that can hold more than 12 rounds of ammunition, subject to a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in prison and a $2,500 fine. The sale of such magazines would be subject to a class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The measure would also ban the import, sale and transfer of a semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a pistol grip, a second hand grip, a silencer or a folding stock, among other characteristics — and violations would be punishable as a class 6 felony.

Notably, the measure does not ban possession of already purchased firearms, only of magazines that can hold more than 12 rounds. It also doesn’t carry the penalty of a felony for people who already possess any of the banned items, a win for gun rights advocates who had argued that the bill would turn some gun owners into “felons overnight.”

The original bill would have required current owners of assault-style weapons to register the firearms with the state or be subject to a felony charge.

The measure has no Senate companion and faces an uncertain fate in that chamber over the coming weeks.

Democrats celebrated the bill as a leap forward on gun control.

“This is a common-sense measure that will save lives,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “The governor is grateful to the House of Delegates for listening to the voices of Virginians and passing this bill.”

Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, said the types of weapons the bill would outlaw have been used “in some of the most horrific” mass murders, and by U.S. soldiers against foreign enemies.

“Our fellow Virginians aren’t our enemies,” he said during debate on the bill Monday.

Four Democrats broke with their party on the ban: Dels. Lee Carter of Manassas, Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and Roslyn Tyler of Sussex voted against the bill; Kelly Convirs-Fowler of Virginia Beach did not cast a vote, though she was in the chamber.

Republicans unified in opposition to the bill.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said the measure covers a wide array of weapons and features. He said that some people with a physical disability “might need a forward grip for better control.”

“If something looks scary, I can’t just designate it as an assault weapon,” Freitas said. He added that the bill would make magazines that are now allowed suddenly subject to a ban.

Levine, the bill’s sponsor, responded by saying, “Virginians understand that laws change, and law-abiding citizens abide by the law.”

The National Rifle Association lamented that under the bill, owners of large-capacity magazines could be subject to jail time and that “no law-abiding Virginian will be able to buy an AR-15 — America’s most popular all-purpose sporting rifle.”

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said the bill is an “important step in getting these types of weapons out of civilian hands.”

“Semiautomatic assault weapons are designed to maximize lethality,” said Lori Haas, the state director of the group. “They are used for hunting human beings.”

All told, the House has cleared Northam-backed measures to:

  • ban assault weapons;
  • raise penalties for “recklessly” exposing minors to guns;
  • require reporting of lost or stolen firearms;
  • ban possession of firearms by people subject to restraining orders;
  • expand local control over firearm ordinances;
  • require universal background checks;
  • limit handgun purchases to one a month; and
  • give courts the ability to temporarily remove firearms from people in crisis.

The package was not as a successful in the Senate, where just three of the eight measures passed without major amendments and two advanced with changes the House did not adopt. No lawmaker introduced an assault weapons ban in the Senate, which defeated two other gun control bills Northam backed.

One of those defeats came Tuesday, when senators struck down Senate Bill 67 from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. It would have required that a gun owner report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement within 24 hours.

McClellan said Tuesday that the bill would “help stem the flow of illegal firearms and straw purchases.”

A majority of the Senate disagreed. In a 21-19 vote, the chamber killed the bill, with two Democrats — Sens. Chap Petersen of Fairfax City and Lynwood Lewis of Accomack — joining Republicans in opposing it.

“If this bill passes, firearms owners will become the only owners of products other than shopping carts to be criminals as a consequence for being a victim of a crime,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said before the vote.

Petersen voted against the bill in committee last week, expressing concern with a fine of up to $250 if a person violates the law. The bill had narrowly cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee defeated a different measure of Northam’s package, Senate Bill 581, which would have raised the penalty for “recklessly” leaving a firearm near a minor.

Richmond City Council killed the Navy Hill deal Monday night; this is what happens next

On the night the Richmond City Council killed the $1.5 billion Navy Hill proposal, a majority of its members asked Mayor Levar Stoney to set in motion a new redevelopment process for the area around the shuttered Richmond Coliseum.

The council approved a resolution asking for a new request for proposals to be issued on a 5-2-2 vote. Those who supported the request called it a roadmap for the city’s next steps toward a downtown transformation that would prioritize public input from the outset.

“We are committed to moving forward. We are pro-development. We know this area is in need,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman.

The resolution asks the Stoney administration to complete a small area plan with “robust” public input, 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 that does not have to center on a replacement for the Richmond Coliseum.

In a joint statement issued before Monday’s meeting, the five council members who supported the resolution said they are committed to working with the administration to conduct that process.

A vote on the request for a new redevelopment process came after Tuesday’s edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch was sent to press. Supporting the request were Gray, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District, Kristen Larson of the 4th District, Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District and Reva Trammell of the 8th District.

“In no way should we impede or stifle the development or revitalization of that area. I think all of us are committed to moving forward in a relatively quick timeline,” Lynch said.

Opposing the request were Andreas Addison of the 1st District and Ellen Robertson of the 6th District. Abstaining were Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District and Michael Jones of the 9th District.

In a statement issued after press time Monday night, Stoney said the decision to scrap the proposal his administration negotiated was disappointing.

“It saddens me that Richmonders won’t benefit from the housing, jobs and economic empowerment this project would bring — and I’m disappointed that council did not follow through on the process they laid out to review and evaluate this transformative project for our city — but I’m resolved to wake up tomorrow and keep working to move our city forward.

“I’d like to thank the four members of City Council who supported this project, the city administration who worked tirelessly to evaluate this proposal, and the thousands of community members who called, wrote, and spoke in support of this project.”

In a short written statement Tuesday, Stoney said, “It’s going to take a lot more than last night to diminish my love and belief in this city. I’m even more inspired to work together to move our great city forward in a way that benefits ALL Richmonders.”

A spokesman for NH District Corp., the group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that was vying to redevelop the swath of downtown, declined comment Tuesday. An interview request made through Dominion for Farrell was pending Tuesday afternoon.

The group’s plans called for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the shuttered 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.

The vote on the request for a new redevelopment process came shortly after the decision to kill the Navy Hill project.

A two-hour public hearing gave way to unsuccessful attempts from four members of the council to override a recommendation striking the plan from its docket.

Those four members supported a failed motion to override the recommendation and delay a vote until Feb. 24, as originally planned. The step would have allowed amendments to be introduced that they said would address concerns, including the size of a special tax zone that the financing relied upon.

Supporting that motion were Addison, Robertson, Newbille and Jones.

Addison said Monday night that he had spent six months exploring ways to improve the terms of the deal. The yet-to-be-introduced amendments were a step toward doing that and potentially reaching a compromise, he said.

“What I am critical of is the fact that I’ve worked with many people in the administration with the Navy Hill development group to outline recommendations and improvements to address those concerns. We’ve heard them briefly, they were going to be introduced tonight, but you’ll never know those.”

He added later: “Our job is to make this project better. That’s City Council’s job to do. We did that job. But you won’t see that, and that’s my frustration.”

Robertson argued a similar point.

“I would really ask this council, in all fairness … address the amendments, address the things that we’ve asked for, continue these papers to [Feb.] 24th, allow us an opportunity to vet all information correctly and fairly, give us an opportunity to respond to those things that have not been put out that are factual, and give us the opportunity to vote based on that information,” she said, adding that she “strongly supported” overriding the recommendation to strike.

That motion failed on a 4-5 vote. Afterward, the council weighed adopting its agenda as presented.

The procedural step typically occurs at the outset of the full council meeting. It was deferred Monday for nearly four hours to allow for public comment on the project ordinances that were slated to be stricken after a recommendation from the council’s Organizational Development Standing Committee.

Setting the agenda with the ordinances stricken would have curtailed the council’s ability to hear public comment on the plan under its rules of procedure. For that reason, the council voted to suspend the rules to allow for comments before formally voting to adopt its agenda. Deferring a vote to adopt the agenda also facilitated debate among members.

The vote to adopt the agenda had the effect of officially striking the ordinances advancing the project from the council’s docket, said Candice Reid, the city clerk.

Seven members voted yes. They were Addison, Gray, Hilbert, Larson, Lynch, Robertson and Trammell. Jones voted no. Newbille abstained.

The council is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 24.


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Virginia House and Senate back local control of Confederate monuments

Confederate statues across Virginia could come down under bills the Virginia legislature approved Tuesday.

The House of Delegates and Senate approved bills giving localities the choice of leaving the statues up or taking them down, the decision Richmond’s City Council has asked for permission to make as it debates the future of the tributes that line Monument Avenue.

“Citizens should decide what their communities look like,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “Each community should have the freedom to determine which parts of its history to honor and preserve through public art.”

The Senate backed her Senate Bill 183 in a 21-19 party-line vote, while the House endorsed House Bill 1537, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, in a 53-46 vote.

“Some have accused us of trying to erase history. We’re not,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. “We’re trying to finally tell it.”

Last week, a House panel incorporated Hudson’s bill on local control over monuments into McQuinn’s measure.

Many of Virginia’s Confederate monuments were raised decades after the Civil War. The state’s 110 Confederate monuments are the second-most of any state, trailing only Georgia’s 114, according to a 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Among the 110 are five on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which were erected between 1890 and 1929. Four of the five are on city property, while a statue honoring Robert E. Lee is on state property and would not be subject to local control.

The City Council last month voted to ask the state for authority to decide the fate of its Confederate iconography. A commission appointed by Mayor Levar Stoney recommended in 2018 the removal of the statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis and adding signs to the other statues.

“Leave the statue there if you want to, but let the whole story, the entire story, be told,” McQuinn said on the House floor before Tuesday’s vote.

While current law makes it illegal to “disturb or interfere” with the monuments, the approved bills would allow localities to “remove, relocate, contextualize, cover, or alter any such monument or memorial on the locality’s public property upon the affirmative vote of its governing body, regardless of when the monument or memorial was erected.”

The bills have minor differences, meaning a conference committee is likely to finalize the language of the legislation. The Senate version, for example, exempts Virginia Military Institute under an amendment proposed by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, a VMI alumnus.

“When you vote for this bill, please know, you are not erasing history, you are empowering people to tell it,” Hudson said before the vote. “You’re letting our communities come together to tell our stories with each other and decide for ourselves what to celebrate.”

Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports giving localities control of the monuments.

Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, expressed concern with the bill including all war memorials and localities changing their minds about the memorials.

“A step like this should require the vote of the local citizens, not just the vote of the local governing body. This will create, likely, an up-and-down scenario which would not be good,” he said.

Johnny Neville, the head of Virginia’s division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he was disappointed by the legislature’s votes.

“All monuments are equally important. We want to keep all our history — not just bits and pieces,” he said.

The push to take down the monuments — and change Confederate school names — gained steam in 2015 after white nationalist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine members of a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. The deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, spurred in part by the City Council’s vote to remove the city’s Lee statue, only intensified the debate.

“When I see the statues, like so many in Charlottesville, I can hear the tires screeching from the car attack that took one life and ravaged so many more,” Hudson said Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the House passed its version of a bill to create a commission tasked with studying the removal of the Lee statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection inside the U.S. Capitol and recommending a replacement statue. The body backed House Bill 1426 from Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, in a 55-44 vote. Ward said Lee, a Confederate general, isn’t the best person to represent the state.

“I think we can do better,” she said.

The Senate approved its bill on the Lee statue commission on Monday.

UPDATED: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax's libel suit against CBS dismissed by federal judge

ALEXANDRIA — A federal judge on Tuesday tossed out a libel lawsuit filed by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax against a television network he accused of slanted reporting on sexual assault allegations against him.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga in Alexandria dismissed the lawsuit. But he declined to grant CBS’ request that the network be awarded attorneys’ fees, disagreeing with its contention that the lawsuit amounted to an abuse of the legal process.

Fairfax sued CBS for $400 million in September, after the network aired exclusive interviews with two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, who accused him of sexual assault more than 15 years ago.

Fairfax says the encounters were consensual and argued in the lawsuit that the network reported the allegations in a way that insinuated his guilt.

CBS lawyers defended the network’s journalism and accused Fairfax of using the lawsuit to attack his accusers.

In a statement Tuesday, Fairfax said he will appeal the dismissal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond: “Since these false, fabricated and politically motivated allegations were made more than a year ago at the precise moment it was speculated I would rise to Virginia’s governorship, I have been denied any meaningful opportunity to establish the truth, clear my name and get justice. I will not stop until I do and can put an end to this political smear campaign.”

The allegations against Fairfax, a Democrat, came in February 2019 when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam faced calls to resign after a blackface photo emerged on a college yearbook page. But the allegations against Fairfax blunted the momentum of those seeking Northam’s resignation.

Both Northam and Fairfax have remained in office, as has Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who acknowledged around the same time that he had worn blackface in college.

Trenga’s 30-page opinion said Fairfax failed to meet the “actual malice” standard for a libel claim by a public figure. Trenga noted that CBS reported Fairfax’s claims of innocence, and that CBS journalists regularly reached out to Fairfax and his spokeswoman to get their side of the story.

Fairfax argued that comments made by CBS News journalists after the women’s interviews with Gayle King implied that the accusations against him were true, including a comment by “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell after Tyson’s interview that it “feels like she was forced.”

Trenga, though, said that in the context of the entire broadcast, he did not view CBS’ reporting as slanted against Fairfax.

“Most basically, none of the ‘CBS This Morning’ co-hosts state that Fairfax did in fact commit the alleged sexual assaults or that they believed he committed the assaults. In fact, at the conclusion of each interview, King, in studio and surrounded by her co-hosts, promptly announces Fairfax’s assertions of innocence, including that he passed a polygraph exam,” Trenga wrote.

But Trenga disagreed with CBS’ contention that Fairfax’s lawsuit was an abuse of the legal process and an attempt to silence his accusers, and that he should be required to pay CBS’ legal fees as punishment. Instead, Trenga concluded that Fairfax’s motives for suing appeared to be legitimate: “namely, a public vindication and restoration of his reputation.”

Fairfax has said he felt compelled to file suit to try to clear his name after the allegations were made. He said he has taken a lie detector test and begged for police to investigate, to no avail. The libel lawsuit, he said, provided the next best way to prove his innocence.

Henrico makes way for revival of Virginia Center Commons, new construction at Azalea Mall site

As Henrico County officials are preparing for the redevelopment of Virginia Center Commons with a public arena, the operators of a senior living community are ready to expand on top of land where another county mall was demolished in 1999.

On Tuesday, the Henrico Board of Supervisors approved zoning and permit changes to let Westminster Canterbury of Richmond expand its continuing-care retirement community over part of the lot where Azalea Mall once stood. The board also voted to authorize the use of $50 million to build an indoor sports arena at Virginia Center Commons.

The projects could bring life back to both dormant properties.

“We’ve had conversations with the owners [of the Azalea property] going back many, many years, so seeing this come to fruition at the same time as you’re seeing Virginia Center Commons redeveloped is incredibly positive,” County Manager John Vithoulkas said.

After spending $7.9 million on the purchase of a 10-acre tract next to its campus at 1600 Westbrook Ave., Westminster Canterbury is planning to build five apartment buildings that will add about 125 residential units.

Founded in 1971 by the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, Westminster Canterbury opened in 1975. The retirement community has about 830 residences now.

Dewberry Capital, a Georgia-based property company, purchased the Azalea Mall property in 1998 for $1.5 million. Plans for a mixed-use development were presented around the time of the sale, but the site has remained vacant for more than two decades.

In November, Henrico’s supervisors endorsed plans to partner with The Rebkee Co. and Shamin Hotels to construct an indoor sports complex and event center at Virginia Center Commons. The effort comes after plans to put the facility at Richmond Raceway fell through last summer.

After Rebkee’s acquisition of a majority of the mall property last month for $12.8 million, the county paid $8.3 million for the northeastern quadrant of the property, which includes part of the former Macy’s store.

Most of the mall building will be redeveloped. The previous majority owner of the property still owns the American Family Fitness building.

With the goal of expanding Henrico’s sports tourism market, the county is planning for the arena to include at least 4,500 seats and 12 basketball courts in order to host sports tournaments, high school graduations and other events.

Construction is expected to begin this summer, with an anticipated May 2022 completion date, said Neil Luther, the county’s director of recreation and parks.

The cost of land acquisition falls under the $50 million project budget that’s being financed by the county’s Economic Development Authority.

Ned Smither, the county’s finance director, said the financing through the authority allows the county to proceed with the project without having to put it before voters in a referendum.

Although county officials have toyed with the idea of building a public event center for at least 20 years, Smither said the current project was not on the county’s radar in 2016 when Henrico held its last bond referendum.

Luther said there will be a “hard cap” on the $50 million project budget. Next month, the county is expected to enter an interim agreement with the Rebkee and Shamin team outlining the pre-construction process, he said.

“It’s incumbent on them to deliver the project within the budget,” Luther said. “We are obviously going to be at the table to make sure the process does not compromise on things we need ... for a successful operation.”

He added: “There won’t be any change orders.”

The board is expected to vote in June on a comprehensive agreement detailing the construction schedule and operational management once the facility opens.