This week in county government; Supervisors support pay hike for school bus drivers; BOS Roundup: news and notes from Oct. 18 meeting; Reeves announces congressional run
Engage Louisa is a community newsletter aimed at keeping folks informed about Louisa County government. It’s free, non-partisan, and powered by volunteers. We believe our community is stronger and our government serves us better when we increase transparency, accessibility, and engagement.
This week in county government: public meetings, October 25-30
Wednesday, October 27
Louisa County Water Authority, Virtual Meeting, 6 pm. The Louisa County Water Authority postponed its regularly scheduled October meeting until this Wednesday. Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell, who serves as a liaison to the authority, said at the board’s October 18 meeting that LCWA plans to meet virtually. At publication time, a meeting agenda was not publicly available. The public notice still indicates that the meeting is in person. Check Louisa County’s website for updated information.
Additional information about Louisa County’s upcoming public meetings is available here.
Interested in taking your talents to one of the county’s numerous boards and commissions? Find out more here, including which boards have vacancies and how to apply.
BOS approves pay hike for school bus drivers
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors supported a pay hike for school bus drivers Monday night in response to a driver shortage that’s impacting school divisions across the commonwealth. (meeting materials, video)
With no discussion, the board unanimously approved the School Board’s request for a $358,000 supplemental appropriation to raise the starting pay for school bus drivers from $15.57 an hour to $21 an hour and the daily rate for substitute drivers from $80 to $84. LCPS’s current fleet will see their pay increase in accordance with the division’s adjusted pay scale and drivers’ years of experience.
Superintendent Doug Straley and Transportation Director Deborah Coles were on hand Monday night, prepared to make their pitch to the board. But, supervisors pre-empted their presentation by quickly passing a resolution appropriating the money. For this fiscal year, the funds will be drawn from savings carried over from FY21.
Schools across the state and country are struggling to find bus drivers. Some central Virginia divisions have been forced to curtail transportation offerings or get creative to cover their routes. Richmond City Schools delayed the start of preschool and extended day transportation until October to allow time to address its driver shortage. Dinwiddie County Public Schools announced a change in school hours to allow drivers to run more than one route.
At the board’s September 20 meeting, Straley and Coles told supervisors that the division currently has all its school bus routes covered but occasionally drivers have to run double routes, meaning children arrive home later than anticipated. The division also has a limited pool of substitute drivers.
“We are looking over the cliff right now. That’s how close to the edge we are,” Straley said.
Straley explained that when some schools closed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many bus drivers took other jobs. But, Louisa, which kept schools open last year via a hybrid model, was able to keep most of its drivers because they were still needed to run routes. Now, the challenge is ensuring they aren’t pulled away by other divisions who are sweetening financial incentives to fill their gaps.
Chesterfield County Public Schools, which began the year with some 100 driver vacancies, recently raised its starting pay rate to over $20 an hour, for example. The division paired the pay hike with bonuses.
“Communities surrounding Louisa are doing some things to recruit drivers and we want to make sure we can retain our drivers,” Straley said. “We have a great fleet of drivers. They are amazing. They are great with our students and they are great getting our kids to and from school safely. We want to make sure we are able to keep those drivers and recruit others.”
Straley emphasized that having a full fleet of drivers to cover every route is essential in a large county like Louisa where many parents commute outside the community to work.
“Many of our families drive to Charlottesville, to Richmond, to Fredericksburg to work. They can’t drop their students off at 8 o’clock in the morning at school and get to work on time. They need the bus transportation,” he said.
BOS Roundup: news and notes from supervisors’ Oct. 18 meeting
The Board of Supervisors convened for a busy meeting last Monday night, considering several resolutions, holding two public hearings, and conducting a variety of other business. Here’s a roundup of news from the meeting. (meeting materials, video)
Solar committee wants meeting with Dominion executives: Two supervisors are asking for a meeting with Dominion Energy executives to address ongoing stormwater runoff, erosion, and sediment control issues at Dominion’s Belcher Solar Facility off Waldrop Church Road.
Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes and Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams, who make up a committee tasked with exploring policies and ordinances that could guide the future of utility-scale solar development in the county, presented a formal statement to the board Monday night.
The statement requests a meeting with Dominion and suggests that its violation of state sediment control regulations during Belcher’s construction could cause it to lose its Conditional Use Permit. Supervisors granted the permit in 2017.
“This Conditional Use Permit requires Belcher Solar to comply with relevant local, state, and federal laws and any violation of the Conditional Use Permit’s conditions can be considered by this board as grounds to revoke the CUP,” Barnes said, reading the statement.
In March, the State Water Control Board fined Dominion $50,700 for the unauthorized discharge of sediment into streams and wetlands around Harris Creek, which runs through the sprawling 1,300-acre site.
On the other side of the property, which stretches from Desper Road to Bickley Road north of the South Anna River, runoff from the facility has caused significant damage to neighboring farms. At a recent board meeting, Adams said that he and Barnes visited surrounding properties and that the “creek erosion, the soil erosion, and the tree damage is pretty catastrophic.”
The statement goes on to say that, in June, Louisa County staff became aware that a Dominion employee had approached impacted landowners, offering them “financial compensation in return for releases of legal claims.” The statement ends with a request to meet with Dominion officials “to discuss these concerns.”
In a phone conversation with Engage Louisa late last week, Barnes said that county officials have been talking with Dominion representatives about the issues at Belcher but now he and Adams are asking for a discussion with “decision-makers.” He added that County Attorney Helen Phillips has drafted a letter to the company formally requesting the meeting.
Barnes said that the number one reason for the meeting is to push Dominion to promptly identify the problems at Belcher and commit adequate resources to addressing them. He noted that he’d like to see an independent engineering firm investigate the issues and put a cost on what it will take to fix them.
Decommissioning sirens serving North Anna Nuclear Power Station: Sixty-eight emergency alert sirens, longstanding fixtures around North Anna Nuclear Power Station, won’t be in place much longer, according to representatives of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Dominion Energy.
VDEM Director of Disaster Response Programs Ed Porner and Dominion Emergency Preparedness Specialist Tyler Swearingen informed supervisors Monday night of planned changes to North Anna’s emergency notification system, which are designed to modernize it and improve its effectiveness.
Porner said that, beginning in 2022, the power plant will be served by the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), FEMA's national system for local alerting that provides authenticated emergency information to the public through mobile phones using Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), to radio and television via the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio.
As part of the shift, the sirens that serve North Anna’s Emergency Planning Zones (EPZ), which encompass a 10-mile radius around the plant, will be decommissioned. The sirens have been in place since 1980.
Porner explained that WEA will replace the sirens as a primary notification pathway in the event of a general emergency at the plant. He indicated that VDEM and Dominion are planning a multimedia blitz to notify residents of the change.
Porner said that WEA are commonplace and easily understood, and that they will work in concert with other parts of the IPAWS system including emergency alerts via televisions and radio.
“You’ve all seen it on your phones if you carry pretty much any kind of cell phone. It’s meant as an alert for pretty much anything that might come up. You’ll see it for Silver alerts and Amber alerts. You’ll see it for a tornado and severe weather. It’s something that’s well known. It’s something that’s well accepted and it’s something that the majority of the population is already extremely used to using,” Porner said.
Porner and Swearingen said that, in contrast to WEA, the sirens’ effectiveness has declined over time. They pointed out that people may hear the sirens but few actually know what they mean or what to do in response.
Porner said that the sirens’ impact is limited because they require access to TV or radio to get further instructions and that they may go off once but someone traveling into the area may not hear them. He also noted that there are parts of the EPZ where sirens can’t be heard.
WEA, on the other hand, provide both notification of an emergency and instructions. Anyone in or entering an area where WEA are targeted should receive an alert on their phone, Porner said.
Swearingen presented a survey conducted by a third-party company on Dominion’s behalf in 2019, which compared the effectiveness of WEA and the sirens. The survey, run in concert with the sirens’ quarterly test, showed that 37 percent of the 361 participants across the EPZ heard the sirens. But, only about 40 percent said they knew what to do. Of that group, only about 40 percent answered correctly when asked what action to take. About 28 percent of participants received the WEA. Of those, about 70 percent said they knew what to do. Of that group, 97 percent responded with the correct information.
“That really brought home to us the need to provide information at that point when you receive the message on what to do,” Swearingen said.
Swearingen also presented data showing that 93 percent of survey participants in the EPZ had some sort of cell phone and 87 percent generally had service at their home. Porner noted that WEA are a primary notification pathway and that there will be secondary systems in place to help ensure maximum outreach. He pointed to reverse 911 via landlines as an example and said individual localities also receive funds to implement systems that meet their specific needs.
Several supervisors expressed concerns about the decommissioning plan.
Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams asked when the sirens would be decommissioned. Porner responded that no exact date has been set but they expect decommissioning to take place by late February or early March. That timeline alarmed Adams.
“That would bring an immediate concern to mind. Number one, it’s a quick timeline for our residents. Number two, it’s a quick timeline for the 10 or 12,000 people that come to Lake Anna on the weekends in the summertime,” he said, adding “you are not going to reach those people by any kind of marketing campaign between now and February because they don’t even remember we exist until the weather warms back up.”
Beyond the tight timeline, Adams said he’s worried about residents who don’t have cellphones or lack cell phone coverage. He said he understands that maintaining the sirens is expensive for Dominion but asked why they couldn’t be left to “fail in place.”
Porner said that keeping the sirens in place while telling the public that the plant would now be served by IPAWS could cause confusion. Adams contended that VDEM and Dominion would just need to tweak their messaging to let people know that IPAWS is being implemented and the sirens are being phased out over a number of years.
Jackson District Supervisor Toni Williams agreed with Adams, arguing that it would cost Dominion very little to let the sirens “age in place and die” as they phase in IPAWS.
Cuckoo District Supervisor Willie Gentry took a different view. He said he lives in sight of a siren and he doesn’t believe it’s an effective notification mechanism.
“If (the siren) went off tonight, (my neighbors) would probably cuss the fact that it went off and that would be about it. I don’t think the siren system is worth the effort of keeping it. As far as I’m concerned, you can take it all down tomorrow,” he said.
Porner and Dominion lobbyist Sarah Marshall, who was on hand for part of Monday’s meeting, told supervisors that the presentation was designed for informational purposes. The plan doesn’t require board approval.
Funding media production equipment for LCPS: Supervisors unanimously approved Louisa County Public Schools’ request for a $380,000 supplemental appropriation to cover the cost of media production equipment and MiFi devices. The money will be drawn from funds carried over from FY21.
According to the approved resolution, LCPS plans to offer “Media Production Technology classes that will expose students to the specific technologies associated with audio and visual production and connect graduates with employment opportunities.”
The classes will offer students hands-on learning opportunities in a variety of media disciplines including script and story development, digital video camera and acquisition technology, sports media production, digital media production, broadcast media production, audio production, audio post-production, video editing, digital photography, 20 animation, 30 animation, compositing, and basic live film production and broadcasting.
In addition to the equipment necessary for media production courses, the division needs additional MiFi devices and accompanying service to aid students in remote learning. The production equipment will cost $290,000 while the MiFi devices and service total $90,000.
DEQ review of erosion and sediment control plans for large solar sites: During the 2021 session, the General Assembly passed legislation providing certain localities with the option to request that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) review erosion and sediment control (ESC) plans for solar projects exceeding 5 MW in electric generation capacity.
Supervisors voted unanimously to opt in to the program at Monday night’s meeting. DEQ will begin reviewing ESC plans for all new projects on November 1. After completing its review, DEQ will provide a recommendation to the county on a plan’s compliance with the state’s ESC law and regulations. The county is subsequently responsible for granting written approval of the plan or providing written notice of disapproval in accordance with Virginia law.
Currently, the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District reviews erosion and sediment control plans for solar sites. But, County Administrator Christian Goodwin told the board that the agency is struggling to keep up due to limited staffing. He said that TJSWCD supports handing off the duty to DEQ and noted that costs associated with the review would be covered by the applicant.
Goodwin also pointed out that the new program doesn’t change state erosion and sediment control standards only the agency that reviews a plan’s compliance with those standards.
“The rules are unchanged. This is the equivalent of hiring someone else to make sure you are conforming to the rules,” he said.
At previous meetings, some board members have expressed frustration with both DEQ’s handling of ESC issues at Dominion’s Belcher Solar Facility off Waldrop Church Road and the state standards in place Goodwin told supervisors that they could opt out of the program at any time.
Board approves special exception for Bio-Cat: Supervisors held a public hearing and unanimously approved Microzyme LLC’s request for a special exception to county buffering and screening requirements for its Bio-Cat facility at Zion Crossroads. The property is located southwest of the intersection of Three Notch Road (Route 250) and Poindexter Road (Route 613) in the Patrick Henry Voting District.
In July, the board approved Microzyme’s application to rezone 23.43 acres of a 24.585-acre parcel (tmp 52-29) from Commercial (C-2) to Industrial (I-2 Growth Area Overlay District). Microzyme requested the rezoning to expand the operation of Bio-Cat, a biotechnology company that has operated in the county for more than 30 years. The company has long blended and distributed enzymes and since branched out into manufacturing human-grade probiotics via Bio-Cat Microbials.
The rezoning allows the company to add a 30,000-square foot facility for microbial production, drive aisles, and accessory parking as well as providing space for future development. The company estimates that the initial expansion will provide 21 jobs.
During the approval process, Micorzyme representatives told county officials that the 100-foot buffer required around industrially-zoned properties in Growth Area Overlay Districts wasn’t feasible. They worked with county planning staff to devise suitable buffer and screening modifications under county rules that allow for special exceptions.
“We knew there would have to be some flexibility for existing uses and businesses that want to expand,” Community Development Director Robert Gardner said of the county’s new land use regulations, adopted after a major revision to the Comprehensive Plan.
Gardner added that slimmer buffers are appropriate in this situation.
“Certainly, it would be nice to shield everything from view but there’s some hard business decisions people have to consider when they are expanding their operation. And expanding your operation is more limited than starting brand new,” he said.
Instead of a 100-foot buffer around the property, supervisors approved the following buffering and screening requirements:
Northward: Existing landscaping to remain and adding supplemental vegetative landscaping containing trees and shrubs within 100 feet of the property boundary with Route 250.
Eastward: Providing a 25-foot to 50-foot setback or yard areas and a partial 25-foot vegetative buffering/screening area using the existing treeline.
Southward: Providing a 25-foot setback or yard area and a 25-foot vegetative buffering/screening area.
Westward: Providing a 10-foot setback or yard area and vegetative buffering/screening.
In its request for a special exception, Microzyme stated that the county’s GAODs exist to “promote high-quality and well-planned development.” The company contends that both will be achieved at the site despite the reduction in the buffer’s width, pointing out that the proposed buffering and landscape enhancement are effective given the nature of Bio-Cat’s operation and the context of surrounding properties. Microzyme notes that the most robust buffers are maintained adjacent to properties zoned agricultural, and that the landscaping along Route 250 and bordering commercial properties are proposed to contribute to landscape aesthetics rather than screening.
Supes green-light golf carts on the roads of Overton Fork subdivision: The board held a public hearing and unanimously approved an amendment to county code that permits the operation of golf carts and utility vehicles, subject to certain terms and conditions, on public highways at Lake Anna’s Overton Fork subdivision. The roads include Overton Drive (Route 1060) and Lois Lane (Route 1061).
Code already allows the use of golf carts and utility vehicles on public roads in a handful of subdivisions around Lake Anna as well as in the Blue Ridge Shores subdivision.
Reeves joins crowded Republican field in Seventh Congressional District race
Hotly contested elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and control of the House of Delegates are just over a week away. But, that hasn’t stopped some local politicians from keeping their eyes trained on 2022.
State Senator Bryce Reeves, who represents much of Louisa County in Richmond, announced on Friday that he’ll seek the Republican nomination in the Seventh Congressional District, a seat currently held by Democrat Abigail Spanberger.
Reeves, who lives in Spotsylvania County and has represented the 17th Senate District since 2012, said in an announcement video that he’s running because “serving you is in my blood,” citing his time as an Army Ranger and police officer. He took a swipe at Spanberger, a former CIA operative serving her second term, accusing her of “doing nothing, hiding, and not leading.”
The insurance agent, who failed to win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2017, joins a crowded Republican field vying for the chance to challenge Spanberger. Five other candidates are already in the race.
Tina Ramirez, a Chesterfield resident and religious freedom activist, announced her candidacy in early July. Ramirez also ran for the nomination in 2020, finishing third in the Republican convention.
Taylor Keeney, a Goochland resident with deep ties to the state’s Republican establishment, also launched her campaign this summer. Keeney worked as a press secretary for former Governor Bob McDonnell and served as spokesperson for John Adams’ failed run for attorney general in 2017. Currently, she directs strategic communications at Hunton Andrews Kurth.
John Castorani, an Army veteran and Orange County resident, Henrico resident Gary Barve, and Goochland resident Derrick Anderson have also filed paperwork to run. In 2020, Castorani finished a distant fifth in his run for the Republican nomination in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District. Barve is coming off a loss in his bid for a seat on the Santa Clara, CA City Council. Anderson, a former Army Green Beret with a Georgetown law degree, worked in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Trump administration.
Reeves isn’t the only man with strong ties to Louisa County expected to jump in the race. Delegate John McGuire, who represents Louisa in the House of Delegates, is also eying a run. He failed to win the Republican nomination in 2020, finishing second to Delegate Nick Freitas.
McGuire, a fitness instructor and former Navy Seal, lives in Goochland County and is currently running for his third term in the House of Delegates. He’s spent much of the summer and fall fundraising and crisscrossing the region on behalf of Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin and downballot candidates.
In a press release earlier this week, McGuire’s campaign touted his gaudy fundraising numbers, pointing out that he’s raised more than $371,000 since July 1. “If McGuire were running in a congressional race, his total would be the largest amount raised by any GOP congressional candidate or incumbent in Virginia,” the release said.
McGuire has raised that money unencumbered by federal campaign finance rules, which limit individual contributions to $2,900. Virginia allows unlimited campaign contributions for state races.
Reeves told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his decade in the state senate sets him apart from the rest of the field. He pointed to his work across party lines on key issues including reforming the state’s foster care system and strengthening state oversight of charitable gaming.
“I would be the only elected official running who has a proven record,” he said. “The rest are all wannabes.”
In the past two cycles, the Seventh Congressional District race has been one of the most competitive in the country. Spanberger rode a blue wave to victory in 2018, narrowly defeating incumbent Dave Brat, then edged Freitas to retain the seat last year.
It’s unclear exactly what the district will look like in 2022. The Virginia Redistricting Commission has been working to craft new maps based on data from the 2020 census. But, so far, the bipartisan group has failed to reach consensus. If the stalemate persists, the Virginia Supreme Court will be in charge of drawing the districts.
Reeves told the Times-Dispatch that, depending on what the congressional maps look like, he’s prepared to move to another part of his senate district. Residency in the district one represents isn’t a requirement for a congressional seat though it is a requirement in the General Assembly.
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