Council, legislators meet

Published 10:34 pm Thursday, December 1, 2011

Legislators and city officials met during the legislative dinner at Obici House Wednesday night. Delegate-elect Rick Morris (R-64th), left, greets Councilman Mike Duman, right. In between are, from left, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn, Councilman Curtis Milteer and Delegate Matthew James (D-80th).

During a legislative dinner held at the historic, newly renovated Obici House on Wednesday, city leaders learned that Suffolk’s eight state legislators share many of their concerns.

The city hosted the dinner to share its priorities and connect with the legislators, many of whom are new to representing the city because of redistricting.

The group talked about topics as varied as transportation, eminent domain and Chesapeake Bay pollution regulations. But money emerged as the chief concern for many.

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“I think it’s going to be as difficult as any we’ve had the last four years,” Delegate Chris Jones (R-76th) said of the upcoming budget cycle. “We will get right to work.”

“We realize the dollars are very tight,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said.

A key discussion involved eminent domain. City officials worried over a proposed constitutional amendment they say would increase the cost of building certain public improvements.

The amendment, passed by both houses of the General Assembly last year, includes a provision that states government agencies would have to pay property owners for lost access and lost profits, regardless of whether land were acquired from the owners.

The amendment must pass both houses again this session and then affirmed by voters in a referendum before it can become part of the state constitution.

“It contains provisions that are very harmful and very expensive for taxpayers,” said Sherry Hunt, special projects manager for the city.

Public Works Director Eric Nielsen said a business owner could sue for lost profits, for example, if a median in the road prevented customers from turning into his business from either direction, or if sewer work closed down the street in front of his business. Having to pay such claims would increase the costs of many city projects.

“We understand property rights are a fundamental right,” Hunt said. “It’s just going to make it very, very difficult for us to get anything done.”

“To calculate 50 years of profit, the sky’s the limit,” Councilman Robert Barclay said.

Jones said the city is not alone in being worried about the amendment.

“Many localities are concerned, just like Suffolk is,” he said. “I don’t think that was ever the intent.”

The city asked legislators to enact clear definitions and limits of lost profits and lost access and to identify a funding source for the increased costs.

The group also talked about transportation funding. Nielsen presented a list of projects — bridge and railroad crossing improvements, additions and replacements, passenger rail, dredging of waterways and more.

“I noticed you didn’t prioritize,” Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-77th) said. “You’re not going to get them all. We know that.”

“What do you mean we’re not going to get them all?” Councilman Jeffrey Gardy asked.

“I can tell you you’re not,” Spruill responded to laughter around the table.

Some council members — Johnson and Councilman Charles Parr — said widening Holland Road is their first transportation priority. The city also is pursuing federal transportation grants to help fund the $94 million project.

A range of other items on the city’s legislative agenda got little discussion — mostly because few of them involve any money. They include changing language on an agreement related to a city-owned site in North Suffolk to make it more conducive to development, and allowing Suffolk municipal vehicles to bypass by the DMV weigh scales on U.S. Route 58.