MECHANICSVILLE – From a hotly-contested 97th District House of Delegates seat to gun rights to changing the Confederate names of two Hanover County schools, the news of 2019 was filled with members of the community expressing themselves in the polls and in government meetings.
The 97th District race and the Nov. 4 election take the top spot in our list of Top 10 stories for 2019.
Scott Wyatt, who represents the Cold Harbor District on the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, ousted longtime Del. Chris Peace for the 97th District seat.
Controversy swirled around the county following six months of county Republicans battling for their preferred candidate.
Peace, who had held the office for 13 years, conceded following a process that had included a May 4 election considered out of order by the delegate’s supporters.
On June 1, a canvass or firehouse primary placed Peace in the frontrunner’s position with a victory of over 2,400 votes.
The party’s State Central Committee followed by upholding Wyatt’s claim to the nomination. The State Department of Elections then approved the result in early July, and declared Wyatt the certified candidate.
While Virginia, in the words of Gov. Ralph Northam, went blue in November with the Democrats regaining control of the General Assembly, Hanover County voters stuck to their conservative roots with Republicans winning in most local contests.
Nick Collette, chairman of the Hanover Republican Committee, said, “Hanover Republicans did their part on Tuesday by sweeping every single race on the ballot from State Senate to the [Hanover County] Board of Supervisors,” said. “Each campaign should be proud of the results.”
Hanover Democratic chair Toni Radler said -- despite the predicted losses -- this election was meaningful for Hanover and the Commonwealth. “This was one of the most exciting elections for Hanover in decades,” she said.
Hanover voters held close to their conservative roots, going to the polls in significant numbers. “Historically, local elections in Hanover have maintained a 25% turnout on average, but this election was closer to a gubernatorial with 53% voter turnout,” Voter Registrar/Director of Elections Teresa “Teri” Smith said.
Coming in second place was action taken a couple of weeks ago by the board of supervisors by adopting a resolution endorsing and protecting Second Amendment rights and declaring its intent to oppose any changes to gun laws when the Democratically-controlled General Assembly is seated next month.
However, supervisors did not declare the county a Second Amendment sanctuary.
The General Assembly is expected to increase background checks and limit magazine loads.
Hundreds of gun rights activities turned out on Dec. 11 for the meeting.
In a major coup for the county, the number three story of the year is about Wegmans Food Markets will be investing $175 million to establish a full-service, regional distribution operation. Gov. Northam said the center will create 700 new jobs.
Wegmans, which has stores throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, will locate the center along Sliding Hill and Ashcake Roads in Ashland.
An ongoing debate takes the fourth position in our 2019 lineup. The Hanover County NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has filed a lawsuit to change the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said only 13 schools in Virginia are still named for Confederate leaders.
An effort to change the names in 2018 fell short when the Hanover County School Board voted 5-2 to maintain the current names and mascots of Lee-Davis, the Confederates, and Stonewall Jackson, the Rebels.
A closed meeting on Nov. 22 ended with no action being taken.
Originally, the NAACP had filed the lawsuit against the school board and board of supervisors. The county was dismissed as a defendant by Robert E. Payne of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Payne granted a motion made by the county that removes the supervisors and the county as defendants, but does not excuse the school board from the litigation.
The lawsuit was filed in August with the county NAACP claiming the county’s refusal to change the names of two schools named for Confederate leaders violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of students who attend those schools.
The fifth story of the year finds County Administrator Rhu Harris presenting his budget to the supervisors. He said a prospering local economy allowed him to present an ambitious Fiscal Year 2020 budget that expands county services, rewards the workforce, and funds education without raising local real estate taxes.
Harris said this year’s proposed $492.4 million budget is an increase of $29.4 million from last year’s plan. Increases in the county’s real estate tax revenue, coupled with increase sales tax receipts and personal property tax revenue, represented an increase in ongoing revenue of $13.4 million.
“The increase in state support, growth in general fund revenues, and positive economic indicators combine to create the opportunity to fund our priorities,” Harris said.
In addition, the state’s contribution to schools increased by $3.6 million.
Harris said this year’s budget relies on traditional county priorities such as funding education, investing in public safety, supporting the community, and maintaining a skilled and motivated workforce. The budget contains a 3 percent raise for all county employees.
A 3 percent across-the-board salary increase for all employees was included in a $194.7 million budget proposed by Dr. Michael Gill, superintendent of Hanover County Public Schools. Also included in the 2019-2020 plan were funding for additional counselors, mental health and special education specialists, and continuing technology efforts and improvements.
The school board also approved a five-year $78 million Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that includes plans to construct a new elementary school, currently identified as a consolidation of Henry Clay and John Gandy elementary schools.
The approved CIP also provides funds to construct vestibules at 14 county schools, enhancing safety at these campuses by providing secure entrances where visitors can be screened for admission.
School board members also approved a school nutrition budget of $7.4 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Our sixth story for 2019 focuses on affordable housing, which was brought before the supervisors by Elizabeth Greenfield, Partnership for Housing Affordability director, and Laura Lafayette, Richmond Association of Realtors president. They said it is a real and growing problem in the state and across the nation.
Recent statistics listed about 35% of Metro Richmond residents as being considered “cost-burdened,” paying more than 30% of their income for housing.
A vision for a comprehensive regional plan was presented by the women. Greenfield said, “Fifteen percent are severely cost-burdened, paying more than 50% of their income on housing.”
Affected residents are evenly divided among renters and home buyers. Senior citizens also are among a large majority of cost-burdened homeowners. While the homes in which they live may be paid for with equity available, the cost of transitioning to senior living can be costly.
Improvements in the Town of Ashland come in at number seven, with the Carter Park Pool and Ashland Theatre.
The Carter Park Pool benefited from $1.5 million in renovations. The pool opened in May, with residents facing a hike in admission for the first time in 10 years.
Town Manager Josh Farrar told Ashland Town Council that the increase is long overdue and will assist the town with operating costs for the community pool.
While Ashland provides the pool memberships as a service to its residents and rates compare favorably with other pool options in the area, Farrar said that recouping 60% to 70% of those operating expenses is a goal.
The Ashland Theatre, which opened its doors in December 2018 after a $2.1 million renovation project, enjoyed a successful year and continues to bring the latest movie to the big screen, as well as live performers.
Farrar proposed a budget of $20.1 million to council, with a goal of balance and compromise. His plan provided funding for an Ashland Police Department Cadet Program, a longevity program that rewards seniority, an increase in council salaries, additional money for increased hours for attorney services, pool expansion, and money to cover increased solid waste and recycling costs.
Taking the ninth position in our Top 10, high-speed rain and possible effects on the town remain a concern of town council and residents in Ashland.
The RVA2DC project saw residents become actively involved two years when options were discussed regarding the construction that some estimate is “decades away.”
In response to the Federal Railway Administration’s release of a Tier II Final Environmental Impact Study, council had passed a resolution expressing the town’s position and concerns regarding the future project.
In 2017 and early 2018, Ashland considered a plan that would provide increased passenger train service on the RVA2DC corridor.
Working with the Virginia Department of Public and Rail Transportation, a draft environmental impact study was submitted to the Federal Railway Administration for approval.
The Top 10 wraps up with the departure of two significant administrators in Hanover County government. County Attorney Sterling Rives retired in February after more than 30 years. County Attorney Cecil R. “Rhu” Harris Jr. announced last month that he will retire from the office he has held since 2004 on May 15.