|More 2007 year in Review|
Our government—federal, state and local— made its usual range of controversial decisions this year, on topics ranging from hog slaughter to nuclear reactors.
McIntire still the biggest city park—for now
Ten years from now, Charlottesville might be able to look back and point to 2007 as the year things really changed for McIntire Park. Odds are, the Meadowcreek Parkway, which is supposed to cut through the park, still won’t be built. But thanks to a late-December decision by City Council, a YMCA is coming to the city’s biggest park.
A $14 million YMCA facility will take the place of a softball field in McIntire Park.
After a sometimes contentious debate over whether the city should give up cash and park land for a YMCA, it’s now a done deal. The debate, which ranged from issues such as whether the city would be outsourcing its Parks and Rec programs to the number of swimming pool lap lanes, finally came to rest nearly eight months after an initial meeting in May sparked it.
Of course, eight months is a blip when compared to the 40 years the Parkway has been in the works. In 2007, the city took what is essentially the last action needed to move the Parkway to completion. In October, it voted 5-0 to grant the Virginia Department of Transportation a temporary construction easement, though it tacked on three conditions. One of those conditions, that the interchange at 250 and McIntire Road be above grade, is dependent on a "separate" project, the 250 Interchange.
That same month, the public got a look at the final two designs for the Interchange, and designers got an earful from locals who opposed the Parkway as a whole. That opposition got a boost in November, when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources sent a letter to the city saying its analysis of the Interchange’s impact wasn’t wide enough. The city promised to meet with the interested parties soon, and the saga continues.
Pigs arrest butcher: Double H debacle
When police officers, dressed in flak jackets, raided the Double H Farm and arrested owners Jean Rinaldi and Richard Bean in late September, the local food debate ratcheted up a notch or 18. C-VILLE detailed the beef between local farmers and state bureaucracy in the cover story "Food fights," specifically Kathryn Russell’s Majesty Farm in North Garden and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). But when VDACS officials put the two local farmers in handcuffs, the debate turned from philosophical to legal.
Bean and Rinaldi were arrested for selling uninspected meat. Bean, who’d spent much of his life as a butcher, had been killing and butchering his hogs at his farm after the licensed facility he’d been sending them to shut down. Faced with the soaring prices of shipping hogs for slaughter—not to mention the price of slaughter itself—Bean decided to do what he’d spent years doing, butchering the hogs himself.
Double H farmers Jean Rinaldi and Richard Bean weren’t smiling when arrested by state police at the behest of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Fast forward three months: Originally charged with four misdemeanors each in Nelson County, Bean and Rinaldi pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor as part of a plea bargain that sentenced them both to a year of probation and a $1,000 suspended fine. "We just have to work with VDACS step-by-step," said Rinaldi. "We’re going to behave now because we don’t want any more trouble."
Bean and Rinaldi still face charges in Charlottesville—seven misdemeaners each and a felony—stemming from the sale of their meat at the city’s farmers market. State Senator Creigh Deeds is working on a General Assembly bill that would help address the issue. And as the debate over local-food regulations continues, you can bet Charlottesville is bound to be one of its hot spots.
Of tea bags and ambulances: local taxes and budgets
Around the city and county, taxes are no laughing matter. So Christian Schoenewald, vice chair of the county GOP, was at least partially serious (we think) when he raised a tea bag, thus invoking the Boston Tea Party, as he called for lower county real estate taxes. But he got some serious results. Last April, the county Board of Supervisors lowered its real estate tax rate to 68 cents per $100 of assessed value from its previous rate of 74 cents.
The Albemarle Truth in Taxation Alliance, organized by Schoenewald and county GOP chair Keith Drake, led what could be considered a low-grade citizens’ revolt, raising hell at Board meetings, while the city only bumped its considerably higher tax rate down by just 4 cents to 95 cents, despite a $9.9 million budget surplus.
And just where is all that money going in the city? Besides consulting fees for road projects (see McIntire Park), the city spent some cash—$1 million to be exact—on more ambulance service, a move that was strongly opposed by budget watchdogs and, paradoxically it may seem, the Charlottesville-Ablemarle Rescue Squad (CARS).
Keith Drake’s 58 cent revolt pushed county supervisors to drop tax assessments.
The new service will operate out of the city fire department and will be staffed by eight new firefighters and medics. City councilors pointed to lagging response times by CARS, something that the all-volunteer group denies is a problem. Typical Democrats: tax and spend (on life-saving equipment).
Bad driver fees: A fine by any other name would smell as putrid
The abusive driver fees that the Virginia General Assembly approved last February have become so famous—or infamous—that they warrant a Wikipedia entry. But will they be around next year? After the political blowback (and lawsuits) the fees generated this summer, don’t count on it.
The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, only apply to in-state drivers. State lawmakers, petrified of collecting money for transportation with anything called a "tax," came up with the fees in a fit of credibility-straining naming. They avoided calling the fees "fines," since all fines must go to Virginia’s Literary Fund.
After they went into effect, legal challenges began popping up around Virginia. In September, an Arlington County judge ruled that the fees were unconstitutional. Two other district court judges found the same, though both were later reversed by circuit courts.
The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute threatened early to challenge the constitutionality of the fees, arguing that they violate the guarantee to equal protection. In July, Rutherford’s founder and president, John Whitehead, sent a letter to Governor Tim Kaine and the state’s attorney general as a warning that the Institute intended to challenge the fees’ constitutionality.
It got its chance this fall in Charlottesville General District Court. Judge Robert Downer wasn’t buying it, though, and ruled the fees were constitutional. Rutherford attorneys filed a notice of appeal in the city’s Circuit Court.
State legislators in both the House and Senate have proposed bills to repeal the fees, though surely they’ll also find some creative new way to spell t-a-x.
Lake Anna: New nuke debate heats up
It was a good year to own a nuclear power plant and an even better one for plans to build more reactors. Just ask Dominion Power, the company that owns and operates the North Anna Power Station and its two nuclear reactors. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Dominion an early Christmas present (both the NRC and Dominion celebrate Christmas, right?): an early site permit to build a third nuclear reactor.
Dominion Power was granted an early site permit to build a third reactor at the North Anna Power Station.
The early site permit doesn’t mean Dominion can start construction on the third reactor—only an approved combination license, for which Dominion has applied, can do that. But it does mean the company can begin to clear the land in preparation for a reactor.
But before the early site permit could be issued, there had to be a meeting with the community in October, and that meeting was filled with people on both sides of the issue, pro- and anti-third reactor. While proponents tossed softball questions to NRC officials, opponents called for Dominion Project Director Marvin Smith to speak, which he eventually did, grudgingly, saying only that Dominion hadn’t yet decided on a new plant and had no plans for a fourth reactor.
While the kerfuffle over the proposed third reactor brewed, Dominion continued to discharge warm water into Lake Anna, a controversial practice that neighbors say is fouling up local aquatic life. The Virginia State Water Control Board apparently disagreed, and issued Dominion a variance provision to keep on dischargin’. Environmental groups have filed notice of appeal.
After spending 2004 ranked as the best city in the nation, Charlottesville dropped to No. 17 in 2007, just behind Olympia, Washington, and just ahead of Flagstaff, Arizona. Charlottesville was ranked No. 1 out of 171 metro areas as the worst place for racial discrepancy in lending as surveyed by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition—local African Americans receive high-cost loans almost four times more frequently than whites. George Allen has a blog. The city remained a strictly Democratic oasis when the three Dem City Council candidates easily defeated two independent challengers. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich all said, in person, that Charlottesville is ready for change. The city mayor wants the city to stop buying bottled water. The city will close Crow Pool. City Council raised its salaries 40 percent, the first increase in five years, while county supervisors gave themselves a 4 percent raise. The city Transit Center had its Grand Opening after months of being open. Women in prom dresses and one man in civilian clothes protested the Sacagawea statue on Columbus Day. McGuffey Park re-opened with futuristic playground equipment, much to the chagrin of The Hook.
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