Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mayor repeats Vinegar Hill myth, Water Board chairman re-appointed

Charlottesville, Va.—At City Council’s Dec. 15 meeting, former Housing Authority chairman and current Mayor Dave Norris perpetuated the myth that Vinegar Hill is the only urban renewal project to occur in Charlottesville. The statement came about 42 minutes into the meeting.

Norris was addressing the residents’ Bill of Rights drafted by the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR). He said he had spoken with an anonymous architect of Vinegar Hill who said this project would never have happened or happened differently if there had been an association of public housing residents back then.

But public housing did not exist here in 1960 when the Vinegar Hill project was approved by referendum. The Westhaven public housing project was built ostensibly to house the displaced residents and opened 1964.

Norris must have meant to say that subsequent urban renewal projects, such as the much larger Garrett Street project a decade later, would not have happened or happened differently if there had been an association of residents. I don’t know the year PHAR was organized. But at the time, neighborhood associations were unable to stop the later projects.

The Redevelopment and Housing Authority is the city’s urban renewal agency. It’s a real estate company created 1954 with the power of eminent domain to seize and sell real estate. The agency seizes land, clears it, then sells or gives away some of the land to rich patrons while renting out some of the land to low-income families, typically who had owned the houses before the project was implemented. Levy Avenue is an example of land seized 1972 that the Authority is still trying sell in 2008.

Activist Raymond Mason brought to the attention of Council that the Housing Authority has not corrected unsafe and unsanitary conditions he, Councilors Satyendra Huja (city planner 1973-2004) and Julian Taliaferro (city fireman since the ‘60s and former fire chief) had brought to the Authority’s attention months ago. Mason pointed out the high school class attending the meeting for extra credit as an example of modern-day segregation. Black students were seated on one side of the auditorium while the white students were sitting on the other side.

President of the local NAACP, M. Rick Turner, also spoke during public comment. He reminded us that next year is the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While much has changed, we still have much work to do.

Chairman of Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority re-appointed

Council re-appointed Michael Gaffney, who in 2004 replaced previous chairman Rich Collins. In 2008 RWSA has been intensely criticized by a small group of disgruntled and discredited ex-officials. In response to a drought mishandled by Collins in 2002, the Council and County Board of Supervisors approved in 2006 the expansion of the city's first reservoir built 1885.

This past summer, all permits for the Ragged Mountain expansion were obtained. The 1983 Buck Mountain Reservoir to address the 1977 drought was never approved by regulators because the endangered James River Spiny Mussel was found.

One reason given for the re-appointment was Gaffney’s successful negotiation with the city on the issue of solid waste. The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority is also the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. The city had unilaterally stopped paying its portion of the costs. Going into the 2002 drought, the agency’s main issue was remediation of the Ivy Landfill. All waste from the city and county is now transferred outside of this area.

Upper Ragged Mountan Reservoir and old pump house went into operation 1885. I'm standing on the earthen dam. (Photos taken 9-28-2008)

Lower Ragged Mountain Dam built 1908. Upper reservoir is just around the bend.

“Gaffney undrained: Confident water boss seeks fourth term”, Dec. 8, 2008, The Hook

[Comment posted to The Hook 12-13-2008—Relating relevant history. Think of it like this: What if you grew up around people who talked about the Great War of 1914 but never mentioned World War II? Then you do research and discover that the same people are WWII veterans. Would such research justify at least a tiny bit of cynicism and distrust?]


What's so significant about a water shortage in 1977?

1. Worst drought on record. First mandatory water resrtictions. Why is historical perspective important? Why is a historical precedent relevant to the same thing happening at a later time? Why did RWSA and the Progress report in 2002 that 2002 was the worst drought and 2002 was the first mandatory water restrictions? Does history have no lessons to help us avoid repeating past mistakes?

Now you may forgive a journalist for not researching a front page story with several years lead time (1999 and 2001 were also dry). You may forgive RWSA director Larry Tropea for repeatedly saying 2002 was the worst drought on record because he had just moved here.

Here's the question: Why would an RWSA chairman with experience and first-hand knowledge of the history not tell newcomers and the new generation what that history is? No one can remember every little detail of every piece of history. But what about the big stories? Why would a self-described expert not be expected to relate his experience to his employers (the public)?

2. What urban renewal projects were going on in 1977?

Garret Square, South First Street and others. I understand it's hard to believe you can be an expert and not know the highlights of your expertise. I can only speculate why Collins didn't call the Progress and correct their front page story. What do you think was his reason? Because we had more water on hand in 2002 than in 1977 and he didn't want to explain that? Maybe. Or perhaps he smply forgot and nobody brought the memory lapse to his attention. But a citizen who had delivered the Progress in 1977 when he was 13 years old did bring it to their attention.

"The emperor has no water" Hoax, March 16, 2008, includes scanned articles from 1977 and 1972 as proof contradicting the experts.

"2007: Year of the Non-Drought", Jan. 3, 2008, includes links to my coverage of this issue beginning in 2000 when I became politically active.

I have focused on water issues because I have a B.S. in Meteorology, which is journalism-- reporting on weather and researching weather-related history. I also focused on urban renewal because I am an eyewitness and so many experts (like Collins, Huja, etc.) have perpetrated the myth that Vinegar Hill is the only urban renewal ever to occur in Cville despite massive historical documentation to the contrary.

"The Last Drought: Has Time Stood Still for 25 Years?" Sep. 3, 2002.

"Charlottesville and Albemarle County imposed mandatory water conservation August 22 for the first time in “possibly a half century.” The two ordinances were identical and took effect the next calendar day for the 80,000 customers. The maximum penalty for wasting water is $500 and water shut-off (“Water Limits Enacted,” Aug. 23, 2002, Daily Progress).

Actually, the last mandatory water conservation was 1977. The ordinances were similar and took effect immediately with the same penalties applied to the 60,000 customers (“Mandatory Water Ordinances Enacted,” Oct. 8, 1977, Daily Progress). The restrictions remained in Albemarle for 34 days and a day longer in Charlottesville.

I was a 13-year-old student at Walker Middle School, lived across from Skate Town on Market St., delivered newspapers, and was interested in weather (B.S. Meteorology 1993). Unless noted, the referenced articles appeared in 1977 from September 1 to November 11 in The Daily Progress.
Urban renewal was in full swing. There was a move to split the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and bring Housing under direct control of City Council (“Housing Board Change Argued: Council Split,” Oct. 14). If successful, the separation of the independent agency’s two functions, property purchase (Housing) and resale (Redevelopment), might have minimized the impact of renewal.

City Council delayed discussion of the proposal and approval by the General Assembly was needed (“City Council Will Weigh Housing Authority Control,” Sep. 3; “Authority Hearing Postponed,” Sep. 30; “City Puts Off Housing Authority Shift,” Oct. 18). Today, the Housing Authority remains intact.

The mayor [Nancy O'Brien] wanted a second Elderly high-rise at the top of Vinegar Hill at then City Market, site of the old Midway School. The Authority wanted it in the “Garrett Street urban renewal area.” Housing Authority Board Chairman Richard C. Collins said “‘the benefits of home ownership’ were being exaggerated” and “‘it’s a sham’ for people to think everyone can afford to own their home” (“Price of Highrise Site Set by Council: Midway Location Chosen,” Sep. 13).

The Housing Authority came within two days of losing a $6.2 million grant “to construct a 58-unit housing project on First Street and four other smaller complexes scattered around the city” (“City Housing Grant Okayed,” Sep. 30).


Just because it's easy to believe the false reality, without any fact checking, that the experts and politicians are relating doesn't mean I have to. I chose to do the research for free not because it was easy, but rather because it's the right thing to do.

It used to be called leadership when when one person speaks the truth even when everyone else is making it up as they go along. The incredible contrast between the truth and what the experts are saying is the energy still fueling my activism on these issues.


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