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ALEXA WELCH EDLUND 

The new Charles City Library, a branch of Heritage Public Library, provides a modern look for the government complex it surrounds.


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'It’s a space to be proud of': Charles City County to open first standalone library

Charles City County can no longer say it’s Virginia’s only county without its own library.

On Sunday, the county officially opened the Charles City Library, the culmination of a project that has taken more than a dozen years to complete. Residents now have a place to read books, use the internet and learn more about the county’s history.

“This is an exciting day for Charles City,” said Jimmy Tyler, the great-grandson of John Tyler, the 10th U.S. president and a Charles City native. Tyler chairs the county’s library campaign committee.

The library replaces a 2,000-square-foot space that was open inside the county’s courthouse 17 hours a week. It’s a branch of Heritage Public Library, a regional library system that serves Charles City and neighboring New Kent County.

The new, 8,200-square-foot facility, at 10790 Courthouse Road, is scheduled to be open 40 hours a week.

The roughly $4 million brown building provides a modern look for the government complex it surrounds, with large windows offering a look inside as the library stands out in front of the tree line behind it.

“It’s a space to be proud of,” said County Administrator Michelle Johnson.

County, state and library officials broke ground on the library in April 2018, 14 years after the county initially said it wanted to have its own freestanding library. There’s been turnover in county leadership, though, with four different county administrators since 2004.

“We’ve had our ons and offs, but the desire has been steady,” Tyler said.

A 2015 ballot referendum started to make the idea a reality.

Three in five Charles City voters approved of a referendum asking if the county should take out $2.5 million in bonds to build its own library and history center. The library campaign has also raised money to pay for the project, which totaled about $4 million.

With a small population of about 7,000 people, the county doesn’t have a large tax base.

For decades, Charles City has relied on revenue from the Waste Management landfill, which brings in about $3 million of its budget, which totals about $17 million.

The county was the only one in Virginia without a full facility for library services and archives, according to Heritage Public Library.

The finished product, designed by Enteros Design and built by David A. Nice Builders, is a one-level library with different sections for children’s, teen and adult books. There’s a classroom and a room for small groups to work together.

A “huskanaw” pen is in the children’s area to pay tribute to the county’s Native Americans, who account for 7 percent of Charles City’s population. The pen was used in ceremonies for Virginia Indian boys moving into adulthood, according to the Library of Virginia.

The library also has desktop computers with fiber internet. A little more than half of the county’s households have access to broadband internet, the eighth-lowest percentage in the state. Tyler said the library will be home to workforce development and help residents with job résumés, among other things.

“It’s a lot more than just checking out books,” Tyler said.

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The library will also house the Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History.

The center, named for the man known as “Mr. History” in Charles City before his 2014 death, will be open at the same times as the library.

It had been located in a separate building , but the new space puts the history center and the library under one roof.

The 2,000 square feet dedicated to the history center — the same footprint of the current makeshift library in the courthouse — includes a study area for the local history collections owned by the library.

“Now we have a space where the archives can be properly preserved,” said Chandra McPherson, the director of Heritage Public Library.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has also planned to build a trail from the county’s two schools, which are also on Courthouse Road, to the library. The trail is expected to be built this summer.

The library has an amphitheater and bike racks outside for riders of the Capital Trail.

Johnson, the country administrator, said Dollar General plans to open a store also between the schools and the new library.

“We’re excited to create a downtown Charles City,” Johnson said.

The opening of the library comes months after another community-oriented space opened in the county.

“The Den” in the high school gives food, clothing and household items away for free every other week. The area behind the School Board office also has two laptop computers with a printer for residents to use to apply for jobs.

Jackie Stewart, the head of the Charles City Educational Foundation, which opened the center, said the foundation hopes to add a laundry facility, which the county lacks, in the coming months.

“We’re trying to meet community needs,” she said. And so is the library.


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Old billboards would get taken down, rebuilt in other locations under Chesterfield sign proposal

Residents could be seeing more electronic advertising signs along Chesterfield County roads under a proposal that would allow businesses to take down older billboards and shift their ad messages to other parts of the county.

The proposed ordinance would ease the approval path for businesses seeking to put up digital signs that have ad messages that would change at regular intervals. The plan would also eliminate a ban on building new advertising billboards that was put into place by the county nearly three decades ago.

Supporters of the proposed ordinance, which the Planning Commission will consider this month, say it’s a much-needed move to allow businesses to more effectively market their messages to passing motorists through modern signs that are more attractive than the current deteriorating and sometimes awkwardly placed billboards.

Detractors contend the plan would open the door to visual advertising clutter along more stretches of Chesterfield. Opponents said they would rather see signs stay where they are or simply go away instead of being moved around.

In the early 1990s, the county passed a law prohibiting any new outdoor billboards from being built. That basically anchored those signs in their current spots, allowing only minor repairs to those signs, many of which are concentrated on Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street Road.

“Some of them are 30, 40, 50 years old,” said Ray Cash, a Chesterfield zoning and planning administrator.

Under the proposal, new billboards could be built in designated areas along main travel routes, including stretches of state routes 288 and 150, Jefferson Davis Highway and Hull Street Road, as well as interstates 95 and 295.

There would be at least 1,000 feet between the billboards, except on the two interstates and state Route 150 (Chippenham Parkway), where the distance between them would be 500 feet. A current billboard would have to come down before a new one is built.

The proposal would cap the number of billboards allowed in the county at 81, which Chesterfield officials estimate is the number of legal outdoor advertising billboards standing in the county. Nearly all of those billboards are owned by the roadside advertising company Lamar.

“Let’s modernize these signs. Let’s make them look nice,” said Chip Dicks, an attorney for Lamar who supports the proposed county ordinance. He added: “You can’t have dumpy looking signs up and down the road and then try to revitalize your community.”

Another major change in the ordinance would make it easier for businesses to get the county’s approval to put up electronic signs that have messages that change at intervals, such as every five minutes or every 10 seconds depending on where they are. The text or images on those digital signs could not move and there would not be any flashing images, Cash explained at a May 21 Planning Commission hearing.

Right now, those digital signs require a conditional use approval from the Board of Supervisors. That process, which includes a public hearing, can be a long and costly endeavor, according to Allen Twedt, the managing partner of the Superior Signs company in Chesterfield.

“It’s a $2,100 application fee that’s nonrefundable so if you don’t get your case approved, you’ve lost that money,” said Twedt, whose company manufactures roadside signs. “It’s a four- to six-month process. It’s very time-consuming.”

Instead of that permit, county staff could approve those electrified signs under the proposed ordinance, but there would still be some locations in the county, including areas in Bon Air and Chester, where those signs would require a conditional use permit.

Chesterfield resident Phil Lohr said the county’s current ordinance was putting billboards on a path to going away. But Lohr said that would change under the law.

While the billboards have been concentrated in the eastern part of the county in such areas as Jefferson Davis Highway, the growth of the county has been toward its western end, he said, and that’s where much of the new signage could go, Lohr said.

“They’re allowing them to come back in the form of 400-square-foot EMCs, electronic messaging [centers] in high-traveled areas mainly in the western part of the county,” he said.

Midlothian homeowner Bob Olsen has criticized the law as the “Superior-Lamar Relief Bill,” adding that residents’ voices have not been considered.

“It appears it’s commercial development at all costs,” Olsen said.

Dicks said the process for overhauling the county’s sign regulations has been open and fair, adding that the Planning Commission has been discussing the changes in public, recorded meetings for months. Dicks also said that late last month, he sat down with Lohr and another opponent of the measure for a 3½ hour meeting about the sign overhaul.

Cash said county planners have been mulling changes to their sign ordinance since they started getting applications for conditional use permits to put up digital messaging signs.

The Planning Commission is expected to consider approving the measure at its June 18 meeting.


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Richmond-area students sue Department of Education, Betsy DeVos over Virginia College's closure

Two students who attended the Chesterfield County campus of Virginia College are suing the U.S. Department of Education in connection with the college’s abrupt closure.

Mark Passut, of Aylett, and Mark Kaiser, of Richmond, were both students at Virginia College before the for-profit school and its parent company lost accreditation in December, forcing the parent company to close all 70 campuses, including the one off Midlothian Turnpike just west of Chippenham Parkway in Chesterfield.

In a lawsuit filed last week, the two said the federal Education Department was to blame for the events leading up to the college’s closure. They said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unlawfully recognized the college’s accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which had been stripped of its power by the Obama administration but reinstated by DeVos. That led to students taking out additional loans and enrolling at a faulty school, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“If Virginia College had not again been able to claim accredited status, or eligibility for federal student aid, Mr. Passut and Mr. Kaiser would not have enrolled for the fall 2018 term,” the lawsuit says.

The two students were not available for an interview. Democracy Forward, a Washington-based legal fund, and the National Student Legal Defense Network are representing them.

“Secretary DeVos and her staff protected an accreditor of predatory for-profit colleges at the expense of students and their families,” said Democracy Forward Legal Director Javier Guzman. “Students shouldn’t have to pay the price for the Trump administration’s unlawful decision to put the for-profit college industry over those seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the department “does not comment on pending litigation.”

The lawsuit says DeVos reinstated ACICS, which accredits for-profit schools, despite allegations that it did not effectively monitor the schools. Virginia College received accreditation from ACICS.

In December 2016, then-Secretary of Education John King terminated ACICS’ recognition as an accrediting agency, saying it was “out of compliance with numerous regulatory criteria.” The agency, King said, did not “develop and effectively implement a comprehensive scheme necessary to establish, apply, effectively monitor and enforce the required standards.”

A year and a half later, the agency’s status was temporarily restored by DeVos, allowing ACICS to accredit schools, including Virginia College, again. According to the lawsuit, between December 2016 and April 2018 when DeVos reinstated ACICS, Virginia College wasn’t able to find another accreditor.

“Secretary DeVos’ priority was allowing ACICS to prop up predatory colleges no one else would accredit, rather than making sure those schools actually deserved to stay open,” said Eric Rothschild, senior counsel for the National Student Legal Defense Network. “Because of her decision, Mr. Passut and Mr. Kaiser, and their classmates, wasted a term and fell deeper into debt.”

Michelle Edwards, the president of ACICS, declined comment, citing “active litigation” but added that ACICS “took multiple steps to provide oversight of Virginia College — in keeping with our accreditation criteria.”

The accreditor in December revoked Virginia College’s accreditation, saying it had concerns with the “student progress, outcomes, student satisfaction, certification and licensure, and staff turnover” at Virginia College, which had 11 campuses. Virginia College is part of Education Corp. of America, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain that has schools in 21 states.

The campus in Chesterfield offered degree programs in business administration, computer networking, cosmetology, culinary arts, electrical technician, and health and medical services.

Passut and Kaiser were studying to become occupational therapy assistants and took out a combined $7,882 worth of student loans for the fall semester, according to the lawsuit. Over the course of their time at the school, they received about $50,000 combined in loans, the suit said. Passut and Kaiser are looking to have their federal student loans wiped away from last fall.