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At Monday's city council meeting, concerned citizens showed up to air grievances about a contested storm water runoff tax and a city tree on Plum Street that has become a nuisance.
At least 50 Richmond residents showed up to protest the storm water utility fee that was passed in May of last year. Every developed property is required to pay a fee based on how much storm water runoff they have. The more impervious surfaces, surfaces the do not allow water to soak into the ground, the property has, the larger the fee.
The city’s website says money from the fee will go into storm water system maintenance and construction and will mean cleaner water for Richmonders and less flooding. But residents at the meeting said it was hastily put together and unfair.
Ophelia Daniels of Southside said:
"Mayor Jones has promised us to provide transparency and to ensure us collaboration, communication and consideration. And to this date, the administration and council have fallen short," Daniels said.
She also said that credits up to $100 have been given to some non-residential properties like churches and businesses, but not to residential properties. And property owners have not been properly informed about the law, an error she said is a violation of the constitutional right to due process.
Eric Jahnke of Southside was next to the podium and spoke in opposition to the fee.
"Now, you people voted on this bill without reading it. There is no limit of how much money you can sock it to us, there is no time limit, you can raise the fees as long as you feel like it," Jahnke said.
As a senior citizen on a fixed income, Jahnke said he can’t afford the fee. He had a particular gripe with the city over a water management problem he said they caused. Jahnke pointed out that maybe he should be able to levy a tax on them.
"When I moved to my location in '83, I called the city five years in a row because of the water problem running down the street. It's been 30 years. Nobody has come out," Jahnke said.
He closed by vowing to watch how the city spends their money in the future and received a barrage of applause that council president Kathy Graziano quickly silenced.
Reilly Carr, also of Southside, made his third appearance in front of city council to add 150 signatures to the 350 he’s already submitted in opposition to the water fee.
Carr said he hasn’t been told what the law means for him as a business owner.
"No representative has conducted a site visit to my property, or any communication has been received by me to tell me what I must do to comply with the law," Carr said.
He said he was considering closing his business over the fee. Carr asked for a meeting with the mayor, city council and the EPA and said,
"You need to listen to the people that put you in the office, 'cause when you run for your seat in the district, you take the time to listen to the public. You don't do it no more."
After he left the podium he asked members of the audience to stand up if they were they to speak against the fee and a large majority did.
Council member Reva Trammell of Southside thanked Carr and apologized to the audience that the mayor wasn’t there to hear their complaints. But she said the city is working with property owners.
"And I know that word is out, that if you don't pay it, they're going to take your property away from you, and I don't think anybody has had that happen to them or even been charged a late fee."
An ordinance filed by city council member Charles Samuels of the 2nd district would cut down an elm tree located on the 100 block of N. Plum Street.
David Robinson is a resident of a Floyd Avenue property located 5 feet away from the tree. Robinson is in favor of the tree’s removal because it has caused damage to his patio, the foundation of his house, and the sidewalk, which he said is causing a “severe trip hazard” that exposes himself and the city to liability.
“To simply bring in a big stump grinder, as the Department of Public Works wanted to do, and grade the roots down about 6 to 8 inches just isn’t a solution.”
Robinson hired a structural engineer to examine the tree and assess the damage to his property. The tree would be replaced if it were to be cut down.
But other residents are in opposition of the ordinance and spoke passionately in favor of saving the tree. June Hazelhurst is one of these residents, and she’s lived next to the elm tree for 25 years.
“You have to love a tree that damages cars and trips up VCU students. I am opposed to this tree being taken down, it’s a beautiful canopy, it’s much taller than any of our houses, it is a feature of Plum Street. It really is a feature of Plum Street. Please don’t let anyone take this down.”
Council member Marty Jewell of the 5th district went to see the tree, and said he was “torn.” Jewell suggested delaying the vote to “take a look at the matter.”
“What’s the rush? If that baby survived the storms that we’ve had in the last five years, it probably can pretty much take anything,” Jewell said.
But the tree is in Samuels’ district, and he voiced his concern over how long the ordinance would be delayed.
“If we put this off, we’re not going to have a new tree in the ground until the next planting season,” Samuels said.
Chris Hilbert, 3rd district member, said the ordinance was a property rights issue and that summer storms make it likely that the tree would fall and damage the property.
“Certainly, I think this homeowner has the right to protect the foundation of their home and to do measures that may end up harming this tree,” Hilbert said.
The city council voted 7-2 to continue the ordinance until April 26.
-Caroline Jackson and Kelsey Radcliffe