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Plus
breaking
Chesterfield supervisors approve Carvana's plans for vehicle inspection facility and storage lot

Chesterfield County’s Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday night to approve online car seller Carvana’s plans to build a 190,000-square-foot vehicle inspection facility and parking spaces for thousands of vehicles.

Carvana plans to use the facility, on a wooded tract in the eastern part of the county, to provide basic maintenance for the vehicles before shipping them to customers around the country.

In addition to constructing the maintenance building at the 184-acre site on Woods Edge Road, the company will clear the land so that it can put parking spaces for 9,000 vehicles awaiting shipment.

Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the plan. Supervisor Jim Holland cast the dissenting vote.

Just prior to Wednesday’s meeting, about 30 opponents of the plan gathered outside the county government’s public meeting room. As supervisors walked by, the opponents chanted: “No Carvana!”

“To me, it’s like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to put their feet in her shoe,” said Ann Dunbar, a homeowner in the Southcreek subdivision. “It’s much too big for the space that’s there.”

Residents in the Southcreek and Walthall Creek subdivisions, which are across Woods Edge Road from the Carvana site, have been sharply critical of the proposal, which the company has estimated will result in 2,500 additional weekday trips on surrounding roads.

Opponents have said they’re concerned the project would put too much traffic on a two-lane road in an area with an elementary school, one where students are picked up and dropped off by bus.

Residents have also said they are worried about the added noise from trucks hauling vehicles in and out and from the maintenance building, where mechanics will switch out tires, change oil and do other general maintenance work.

But Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle, whose Bermuda District includes the Carvana site, said prior to Wednesday’s vote that the company had agreed to a long list of conditions to try to address neighborhood concerns.

“Is this a perfect case? No, it’s not a perfect case,” Jaeckle said. “But we also have the challenge of balancing out residential and commercial and industrial so we can have a reasonable tax base.”

Jaeckle made the motion to approve the Carvana plans with the conditions that real estate tax revenue from the project be used to help pay for road improvements in the area and that the money be used to help pay for helping alleviate noise from the project, if noise mitigation measures are needed.

Carvana representatives have said that the company’s plan actually “down-zones” the property, which has long been zoned for industrial use. Some county officials have noted that there’s a long list of other potential uses for the property, such as storage facilities and park-and-ride lots.

The company has said access for trucks bringing cars to and from the site would be toward the southern end of the property at a spot farther away from the entrances to the Southcreek and Walthall Creek subdivisions. The company has also said that it would screen the view of the property from Woods Edge Road by using a wooded buffer and fencing.

Carvana has said that the public would not be allowed on the site and that the property will not have the company’s trademark car vending machines. The company has also said that its car-hauling trucks and vehicle test drives wouldn’t head north of Woods Edge Road past the subdivision entrances.

Still, residents remain concerned by the added traffic, as roughly 400 to 600 employees are expected to be going in and out of the property.

“We are going to be impacted by noise,” Erik Goulet, president of the Walthall Creek Homeowners Association, said after Wednesday’s vote. “We are going to be impacted tremendously by travel, all the cars and trucks and stuff that is going to be added to that road.”


Virginia
Design drawings for mental hospital expansion were approved the month project was supposed to be done

The final design of a critically needed expansion of Western State Hospital was approved in September, the same month the $18.2 million project was supposed to be completed under a tentative working schedule established two years ago.

Under that start date, the 56-bed expansion of the state mental institution in Staunton is 19 months behind schedule. The schedule was part of a timeline in the contract the state signed in 2017 with an architectural/engineering firm to design the expansion.

However, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services said the original completion date was April 2020 — not the unofficial September 2019 deadline in the contract. The new completion date is April 2021.

“The original timeline was aggressive and did not leave much room for the modifications of design work,” spokeswoman Meghan McGuire said Wednesday. “Every effort was made to meet the original time frame, but it became clear in the last several months the schedule would need to be revised.”

The delay infuriated members of the House Appropriations Committee when the state informed them on Monday of the delay, which the behavioral health department incorrectly estimated at nine months in the presentation.

“I am bitterly disappointed at what I am hearing today because the ball has been dropped,” Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told Mira Signer, interim commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services.

The behavioral health department is the state agency responsible for managing the Western State expansion. The agency said “time is of the essence” in the $2.2 million contract it signed in April 2017 with HDR Architecture Inc., a national architectural and engineering firm, to design and complete the project.

“Delays in the design and/or construction may significantly impact the feasibility and cost of the project,” the state told the firm in a memorandum of understanding signed a month earlier that accompanies the contract and includes the timeline.

Joe Damico, director of the state Department of General Services, estimated this week that the delay could add about 4.5% to the cost of construction because of increases in the price of materials, especially steel. If so, that would add $819,000 to the cost.

HDR did not receive final approval of General Services’ Division of Engineering and Buildings — the state’s building code official for state agency capital projects — until September, despite a due date of January 2018 under the working schedule in the contract.

The architectural and engineering firm, based in Omaha, Neb., deferred comment to the behavioral health department, which has blamed the delay partly on a state misunderstanding over which set of building code requirements applied to expansion of the hospital.

Behavioral health officials said the timing also was affected by a staff change at HDR because of concerns about the schedule. McGuire said the agency’s “expectations for timeliness to meet documentation submission deadlines were not being met.”

“This was corrected when the contractor brought a new manager on board,” she said. “However, this change resulted in a delay.”

The behavioral health department also has undergone major leadership changes since Dr. Jack Barber, then interim commissioner of the agency, signed the contract in April 2017.

A year later, Gov. Ralph Northam replaced Barber with Dr. Hughes Melton, who died on Aug. 2, two days after a three-vehicle accident in Augusta County that also killed an 18-year-old Staunton woman.

Northam named Signer as interim commissioner of the agency, which oversees nine state mental hospitals, including Western State, which the state replaced in 2013 with the expectation it could be expanded.

When the Western State expansion was included in a $2.4 billion state bond package in 2016, McGuire said the department believed “that the same code used to design the main hospital would be able to be used to design the building’s expansion.”

The new hospital was designed and built to the Uniform Statewide Building Code dating to 2006, but McGuire said the agency did not direct HDR to use those requirements for the extension. She said HDR submitted designs based on the building code first developed in 2012 and applicable until early September.

Damico said state building code officials met with HDR and behavioral health officials the same month the contract was signed in 2017 to make the process and their expectations clear.

“We came out of the chute telling them what they had to comply with,” Damico said in an interview on Wednesday.

Subsequently, his agency reviewed eight sets of architecture and engineering drawings — from schematic design to preliminary and final working drawings — before finding them in compliance with the Uniform Statewide Building Code that was in force at the time the state awarded the contract.

“We review them at every phase for code compliance,” Damico said, adding, “24 months is a long time to get the drawings correct.”

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development develops new Uniform Statewide Building Codes every three years for different aspects of new construction or renovation. The 2015 codes went into effect in September 2018, with a one-year grace period for applicants to choose to use the 2012 codes.

Damico said HDR submitted the corrected final working drawings at the beginning of September, just before expiration of the grace period for the 2012 building code. He confirmed that the building code official has authority to waive requirements that are not related to life safety, but said, “We do stay in conformance with the current codes.”

State agencies are responsible for managing budgeted capital projects unless lawmakers specify that the Department of General Services manages them.

For example, the Department of General Services is managing the $315 million project included in the state budget this year to replace Central State Hospital, a sprawling state mental institution just outside of Petersburg. The agency’s Office of Construction Management for Special Projects runs the project, but the Division of Engineering and Buildings reviews it for compliance with the applicable code requirements, just as it does for the Western State expansion.

The state has signed a contract with an architectural/engineering company and is negotiating with a construction management firm for the Central State replacement, which has a five-year timeline for completion.

The Western State expansion is considered critical to relieving pressure on Virginia’s overcrowded mental institutions under a 2014 state law that required them to provide the “bed of last resort” for people in psychiatric crisis who pose a threat to themselves or others, or cannot care for themselves.

With state hospitals operating near or beyond their capacities, the state has proposed a temporary, 56-bed expansion of Catawba Hospital near Salem for geriatric and adult patients held involuntarily under temporary detention orders whom private psychiatric facilities have declined to accept. The expansion at Catawba would cost almost $20 million over two years in the next state budget, in addition to $4.1 million in internal funds to start the project this year.

McGuire said that even if the expansion of Western State met the original completion date of April 2020, “the state hospital census crisis is a problem for today.”


Plus
breaking
Kamras proposes new open enrollment process for Richmond schools

As a special committee inches closer to making recommendations on new school zones, Richmond Public Schools wants to shake up how open enrollment is done.

Superintendent Jason Kamras’ administration recommended this week to the Richmond School Board that, starting next year, the school system have a weighted lottery for its open enrollment students, helping students from low-income families get into schools that aren’t in their neighborhood zones.

The idea is one that has been discussed frequently throughout a rezoning process that has proved controversial with school leaders unsure of how to best diversify the city’s schools.

“It’s a way to promote equity,” Kamras said Monday, when the proposal was made official for the first time. “If you think of inequity as the deck being stacked against some kids, if we can flip that and stack it in their favor, I think that’s a good thing to do.”

Richmond’s current open enrollment process is unweighted, giving every family in the city the same opportunity to transfer out of their zoned school and into another if there’s space. About 1,000 families currently use the system, which does not include Franklin Military Academy or the International Baccalaureate program.

Details on the plan for a weighted lottery are still vague — the proposal came as the board was receiving an update on this year’s open enrollment process, which will still have an unweighted lottery and is scheduled to start Dec. 16, and less than two months before the School Board is to meet its self-imposed deadline for a decision on new school zones.

A committee of School Board appointees tasked with reviewing new zone options met again Wednesday, trying to finalize a set of three to five plans to recommend to the School Board, which ultimately has the power to set new zones. The committee, which was originally scheduled to make its recommendations last week, is going to meet again before signing off; a specific day was not decided.

The committee did not talk much about open enrollment Wednesday, but the few mentions of a weighted lottery were positive.

One of the School Board’s goals for the rezoning process is to improve the diversity of Richmond’s schools, nearly 3 in 4 of which are what researchers define as “intensely segregated,” meaning less than 10% of the student body is white.

The most controversial proposal has involved combining school zones, a process known as pairing, in which students go to one school for certain grades and a different school for the rest. Two of the three remaining options created by Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS involve pairing and specifically target William Fox and Mary Munford elementary schools — which are home to the city’s whitest and wealthiest school populations.

Opponents to pairing, mostly from the Munford and Fox communities, have pushed for a weighted lottery to diversify schools throughout the process. It was one of the ideas proposed by the main advocacy group against pairing, Revitalize RPS, which specifically requested that transportation for open enrollment students be included.

Kamras said it would be.

“Choice without transportation isn’t choice,” he said.

School Board member Scott Barlow, whose 2nd District includes Fox, said he supports a weighted lottery.

“Although I’d prefer to start discussions sooner rather than later, I’m glad that we’ll be digging into our open enrollment policies next year,” he said Wednesday. “If nothing else, the rezoning process has highlighted an overdue need to update our open enrollment practices to increase equity and efficiency of student placement.”

This isn’t the first time changes to the open enrollment policy have been proposed.

Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th District on the School Board, unveiled a plan in August that calls for citywide open enrollment, in which students would be assigned to a school through a lottery. That lottery wouldn’t factor in where a family lives, their academic achievement, or demographics. Families would go through the process for kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade — choosing up to 10 elementary schools and up to six middle schools and six high schools.

“Families in Richmond need more choice, not less,” he said Wednesday. “My colleagues, along with the administration, seemingly want to pick winners and losers instead of allowing everyone to participate in open enrollment.”

Young’s proposal has not gained traction with the rest of the School Board or the rezoning committee.


Local
Creighton Court evictions prompt outcry, suspicion of RRHA redevelopment plans

One in eight families living in Creighton Court faced possible eviction by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority on Tuesday.

Fifty-two of 410 leaseholders remaining in the East End public housing community that is slated for redevelopment appeared on the Richmond General District Court docket. A judge ruled that RRHA could proceed with evicting 35 from the federally subsidized apartments, even if the tenants ultimately pay what they owe in full.

“Obviously when you get behind, it’s hard to get caught up. It just keeps piling and piling and piling,” said Tamika Smith, a Creighton resident of seven years.

Smith was one of the people who received a judgment permitting RRHA to carry out an eviction. She originally owed about $1,200 in back rent, according to the “unlawful detainer” the housing authority filed against her. By the time she appeared in court Tuesday, she had paid about $800 of that sum and owed $407, plus $52 in court costs.

Richmond has had the second-highest eviction rate in the country, according to a Princeton University Eviction Lab analysis published in The New York Times last year. That finding set in motion a statewide response to curtail the crisis. Locally, it led to the creation of a diversion program aimed at helping renters avoid the stain of an eviction judgment on their record.

A leading expert on the subject called Richmond’s response “a model for the nation” at an event held last week. The women and men lined up in court Tuesday — some for as little as $50 in back rent — stood in stark contrast to that praise. The volume of proceedings prompted outcry from housing advocates, which led RRHA CEO Damon Duncan to defend the housing authority’s practices.

One by one, the tenants were summoned to Judge Claire Cardwell’s bench, where the Creighton property manager stood with a stack of balance sheets. Cardwell asked whether the tenant agreed with the amount the property manager said they owed. If the tenant did, a judgment in that amount was entered against them.

“If you reach an agreement that satisfies [your landlord], they can let you stay,” Cardwell told Smith when her turn came.

Even if Smith and other tenants avoid eviction, the judgment will hurt their ability to secure housing in the future, said Victoria Horrock, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center who sat in on the hearing Tuesday.

“By taking them to court and obtaining judgments against those 35 families, that means that even if they are able to stay in RRHA housing, their ability to get subsidized housing or privately owned housing in the future will be extremely limited,” Horrock said.

The 35 leaseholders will have 10 days to appeal the judgment or try to negotiate with management on a plan to stay. Seventeen others RRHA sought to evict paid what they owed before appearing in court, the housing authority said in a statement issued late Tuesday.

“It is our hope that the remaining residents are able to fulfill their rental obligations to avoid eviction,” Duncan said in the statement.

Most of the cases heard Tuesday took less than a minute. Attorneys working with the city’s new eviction diversion program sat in on the hearing but did not assist the Creighton residents; RRHA had not previously agreed to participate in the pilot program. Duncan said in the statement that the housing authority had now committed to do so.

In 2017, no landlord in the state threatened to evict more tenants than RRHA.

The housing authority filed 1,460 eviction lawsuits against tenants living in the 4,000 apartments it manages, a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis found. RRHA did not immediately provide figures for this year in response to a Times-Dispatch request Wednesday.

***

Throughout the day, news of what housing advocates called a “mass eviction” at Creighton spread on social media.

The public housing community was marked for redevelopment several years ago. Construction of a new mixed-use housing development near the existing complex has inched forward since last October. The first 105 units are expected to open later this year. Sixty will be reserved for Creighton residents.

Duncan directed RRHA staff to stop leasing vacant apartments in Creighton shortly after becoming CEO in the spring, citing plans to eventually demolish the complex and redevelop the plot it stands on.

His decision has led the number of families living in the 504-unit complex to drop to 410 as of this month, an occupancy rate of about 81% . By comparison, the five other large public housing complexes in the city have an occupancy rate of 95% or higher, according to a report compiled by the housing authority. RRHA told the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that 3,485 families were on its public housing waiting list earlier this year.

Duncan vowed earlier this year to take an “aggressive” approach to redeveloping the city’s six largest public housing complexes. In their place, he wants to build mixed-income neighborhoods with new housing and amenities, he said.

Duncan’s stance drew condemnation from activists and some RRHA residents, who said the housing authority had not taken into account the wishes of residents before moving ahead with its plans. RRHA officials have said since then that they intend to include residents in each step of the process.

Housing advocates drew a link between the wave of evictions and rising vacancy at the complex, calling it an attempt on the part of the housing authority to accelerate plans to demolish and redevelop the neighborhood.

Duncan disputed the assertion in the statement, saying there was “no correlation between unlawful detainers and the redevelopment of Creighton Court.”

Horrock, with the Legal Aid Justice Center, remained cautious.

“That’s some of the most affordable housing in the city,” Horrock said. “It’s concerning to us that they’re not leasing new units there, as is their legal obligation, and we certainly hope it’s not a way to informally remove people from Creighton before redevelopment.”

Outside the courthouse Tuesday, Smith sat alone after the hearing, the prospect of losing her home hanging over her.

She said she hadn’t missed a rent payment during her seven years living in Creighton, but hit a rough patch this year and was still working to get back on solid footing.

“Just trying to stay optimistic,” she said. “It is what it is.”


DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/RTD 

Thank you for your service

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/times-dispatch

Mike Danner (left), a volunteer, and Clay Mountcastle, director of the Virginia War Memorial, unloaded more than 1,200 retired American flags Wednesday at the memorial, which will properly dispose of them. The flags were collected by the Woody and Nelsen funeral homes through an exchange program that offered new flags in exchange for those that were old, torn or soiled.