Charlottesville Breaking News

Charges filed: Ousted developer Toomy blamed for fire

It's been a tough time for Alex Toomy. Last year, he moved out of the 7,000-square-foot house he built on 106 acres and lost, via foreclosure, the adjacent Ragged Mountain subdivision he'd developed. Asked by the new owners to clean up the lots in preparation for the spring selling season, he'd been conducting some outdoor brush burns.

Now he stands accused of starting, perhaps accidentally, one of the larger fires in recent history, a multi-day wildfire that scorched 800 acres, consumed a barn, and put as many as 40 houses at risk.

He's living on-site in a tenant house, and the new owners have tapped his ex-wife as listing agent for the now-blackened rolling hills.

"We could easily have another Ragged Mountain fire," said Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, in announcing the two misdemeanor charges against Toomy at a Tuesday morning press conference.

If convicted, Toomy faces up to $750 in fines– $500 for breaking the state's springtime ban on pre-4pm burning and $250 for conducting a careless fire.

"I'm delighted that somebody's held responsible," says neighbor Rip Thomsen of the adjacent Colston subdivision. "I can't say that 750 dollars is a major fine. It should be more for that kind of negligence."

The larger issue, some neighbors s...

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Remembering Emily: Sister Katie helps unveil Couric Cancer Center

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Nearly a decade after losing her battle to pancreatic cancer, state senator Emily Couric was commemorated Saturday by the dedication of a 150,000 square-foot University of Virginia medical building bearing her name. Headlining the dedication was broadcast journalist Katie Couric, who, several years before losing her sister, lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer.

"I have personally witnessed the ravages of this disease and the importance of treating not the disease but the patient and his or her family," said Couric, a 1979 University graduate. Now anchoring the CBS Evening News, Couric has long tried to highlight cancer even letting millions of Americans watch in 2000 as she received a colonoscopy and, five years later, a mammogram.

However, she directed much of the credit for pushing the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center to cardiologist George Beller, her late sister's husband, who convinced the General Assembly to appropriate $25 million of the $74 million cost.

"George was like a dog with a bone," Couric told reporters during a pre-dedication briefing. "He never gave up."

At the dedication ceremony, whose attendees included cancer-surviving UVA women's basketball coach Debbie Ryan, Couric read from a favori...

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Happy campers: Commission smiles on pool-to-camp plan

Field Camp founder Todd Barnett is one step closer to buying the historic Blue Ridge Swim Club after the Albemarle County Planning Commission recommended approval of a special use permit February 22. While commissioners cited dozens of letters from Swim Club neighbors supportive of Barnett's plan, other neighbors say they're willing to fight to keep the camp out of the neighborhood.

"It is not an acceptable use of the property," says Frazier Bell, a 33-year neighbor to the Blue Ridge Swim Club– a 13-acre parcel featuring a unique, century old, hundred-yard-long spring-fed pool.

Bell says he objects to the potential noise and traffic he believes the Camp will bring and, in particular, by its founder's plan to construct a 2,000 square-foot outdoor pavilion.

"Twice as long as most houses," Bell says an email following the hearing. "And, it will mean clearing a large area for the structure and around it. They plan on campfires. No one addressed the possibility of fire safety."

Bell is not alone in opposition. At least five other Owensville Road-area residents, including Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins, expressed concerns at the recent hearing, most stressing the potential for increased traffic, trespassing, and noise from the estimated 60 campers who attend Field Camp at any one time during the summer months.

"Any ration...

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Mall econ: Is downtown café space handed out fairly?

With spring just around the corner, it's time again for an annual tradition on the Downtown Mall: arguing about outdoor café space. City planners have proposed a revised ordinance to settle the issue, but some say it gives a handful of restaurants a competitive advantage.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, when the City was begging folks to open restaurants on the Downtown Mall, there was less at stake. But now that 30 downtown eateries have outdoor patios, size matters.

During the $7.5 million re-bricking project in 2009, city planners came up with what they thought would be a simple plan: reducing all café spaces to 800 square feet, a limit that had already been in place for several years.

At the time, Miller's, Sal's, Rapture, Hamilton's, and The Blue Light Grill had been operating with more than 800 square feet. The owners of Zocalo, too, managed to secure more square footage directly from former City Manager Gary O'Connell, who stepped in after the owners complained about getting less space than Blue Light.

It was time, planners explained, to create a more level playing field.

The reaction was immediate. In the midst of a recession, and with the Mall under constructi...

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Mitchell's suit: City released as crosswalk trial advances

More than three years after disabled artist Gerry Mitchell was struck by an Albemarle County Police cruiser and then ticketed, his $850,000 lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville and two police officers has found a trial date– but the biggest of the three defendants is off the hook.

In a February 24 hearing in Charlottesville Circuit Court, attorney John Zunka, representing the City, argued that the municipality is protected from liability by the legal concept of sovereign immunity, which offers wide protection to government.

Judge Gaylord L. Finch (who is hearing the case after Judge Edward Hogshire recused himself and the first replacement fell ill) agreed with Zunka's reasoning and dismissed Mitchell's claims against the city. However, Finch allowed Mitchell's claims against the two officers– among them, negligence, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress– to go forward, setting a trial date of September 27-28.

"We're happy that a jury is going to get to hear this case and decide the issue," says Richard Armstrong, attorney for Mitchell.

As reported in 2007 Hook cover story, Mitchell was steering his motorized wheelchair in a W...

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