Audible gasps spread through the Richmond City Council meeting on Tuesday when it was announced that nearly 50 people had signed up to speak during the public comment period, most about the city’s most valuable piece of shoreline that is once again the subject of tense debate.
The gasps foreshadowed some colorful comments from the residents who blasted city officials about how they approved a settlement agreement for the prized shoreline, known as Point Molate.
Richmond resident Juan Reardon denounced as a “sick pig” the settlement the city had reached with a would-be developer of Point Molate. He declared that Mayor Tom Butt was “becoming the worst mayor Richmond’s ever had.”
“We are not buying sick pigs, Tom. And no amount of lipstick will help,” he said, addressing the mayor.
The city appears to be on the back foot in the aftermath of a judge earlier this month allowing a lawsuit to proceed that challenges a settlement city officials reached with a developer. U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers accused the city of a lack of transparency in the process as she refused the city’s motion to dismiss the residents’ lawsuit. The settlement agreement in dispute would allow hundreds of housing units to be built on Point Molate.
Residents like Reardon came to the meeting hoping that the judge’s refusal to dismiss the lawsuit would open up discussion on the controversial settlement once again, thereby giving them the public process they’ve been demanding for months.
The settlement at the center of the dispute was the result of a years-long legal battle between the city and developers who had sought to build a casino at Point Molate. Richmond voters rejected the proposed casino in an advisory referendum vote in 2010.
The developers, in turn, sued the city. Both parties eventually agreed to a settlement in April. A group of residents has challenged this settlement in court, suggesting the process of reaching the agreement was not transparent.
Earlier in the week, it had appeared that Butt would bring up the settlement agreement for the council to discuss again and vote on publicly. But that didn’t happen.
An item placed on the agenda by Butt had called for the council to “approve the Point Molate settlement agreement,” this time in a public vote. The previous vote was held out of the eyesight of the public, in closed session.
That agenda item was later revised to call for the council to “consider whether to publicly reaffirm the Point Molate settlement.”
But by Tuesday evening, shortly before the council was scheduled to meet, the item was removed entirely from the agenda, prompting much speculation from opponents of the settlement agreement.
Richmond resident David Helvarg, co-chair of the Point Molate Alliance, a group that opposes the settlement plan, said he believed the agenda item was pulled because some council members may be apprehensive about re-affirming their previous votes.
“I think that he may have been unsure if he actually has the council votes in the public as opposed to behind closed doors,” Helvarg said.
“He knew that people are mobilizing for this, and he didn’t want to confront public opposition. I think he’d rather sneak it through on a quiet council evening,” Helvarg said.
“But I don’t think there’s going to be a quiet council evening between now and the elections. This is an expanding issue that’s going to become an election issue.”
In a later interview, Butt offered a different explanation for his decision not to put the settlement on the agenda for the evening. He said he had originally placed the item on the agenda as a way of addressing complaints that the council erred when it approved the settlement behind closed doors. But feedback from residents made him change his mind, he said.
Butt said that in the days leading up to the council meeting, he had received emails from residents that implied that placing the debate on the agenda wouldn’t end the litigation.
“So I thought, ‘What’s the point? Why go through all of the time and effort re-voting on it in public session if it’s not going to go satisfy these guys?’” Butt said.
Despite the settlement agreement’s absence from the agenda, it figured prominently at the meeting where dozens of Richmond residents shared their concerns during public comment.
Several activists, some of whom are involved in the lawsuit against the city, took shots at the city’s handling of the settlement. The urged council members to reject the plan to build housing on the shoreline.
Richmond resident Charles Smith called the proposed housing “a deathtrap,” noting its proximity to the Chevron refinery and the limited roadways in and out of the area.
“Shame on the city council for voting for this,” Smith said, receiving applause from attendees.
Several speakers decried the housing plans as a pathway to gentrification, noting that the development would primarily benefit the wealthy, and that housing is desperately needed in Richmond’s urban core—not on the shoreline.
Other speakers focused on the potential environmental impact that housing would have on Point Molate, which is home to eelgrass beds vital to the region’s habitat.
Butt sat stone-faced through public comment and did not address residents.
Butt later disputed several of the points made by residents, including the critique that the housing would primarily benefit wealthy homeowners. Butt noted that the eventual developers would either have to designate a number of units as affordable housing or pay the city in-lieu fees, which the city would use to build affordable housing.
However, Butt also added that he isn’t opposed to the idea of the development attracting high-income buyers, saying that, “frankly, we could use more rich people in Richmond.”
A court hearing on the residents’ lawsuit that had been scheduled for Sept. 24 was postponed in order to give both parties time to consider any potential developments that occurred during the council meeting.
Butt said he may put a vote on the Point Molate settlement agreement back on the city council agenda in the coming weeks.
Robert Cheasty, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks, a local nonprofit that was among the groups that filed the suit, said that for now, the fight will head back to court. But he expressed disappointment in the continuing lack of public process.
“What I thought would have been great tonight would be to have a real discussion on Point Molate and Richmond City planning,” Cheasty said. “But the mayor didn’t want that.”