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Voter Referendum On Richmond Coliseum Deal Faces Legal Challenge

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney submitted the proposed $1.5 billion coliseum redevelopment plans to City Council this week.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney submitted the proposed $1.5 billion coliseum redevelopment plans to City Council this week. (Ben Paviour/VPM)

A Richmond School Board member and a pastor are suing to block a voter referendum on the city’s plans to redevelop the Coliseum and surrounding neighborhood. 

Richmond lawyer Paul Goldman collected nearly 15,000 signatures to get the referendum on the November ballot. It would create new rules governing how the city can finance economic development projects and how new tax revenue can be spent. Goldman has admitted the referendum would essentially kill the deal between the city and a private development group headed by Dominion CEO Tom Farrell. 

The lawsuit argues that, according to the Richmond City Charter, referendums can only look at “the structure and administration of city government,” and that the referendum doesn’t fall into either of those categories. But Goldman said he thinks the lawsuit is baseless and is meant to intimidate him.

“The ‘administration of city government’ is such a broad term that’s never defined in the charter,” Goldman said. “What is the administration of city government, but deciding how to spend money and decide what your priorities are?”

The legal challenge against Goldman’s referendum is being brought by Richmond School Board member Cheryl Burke and Bishop Orrin K. Pullings. Neither returned a request for comment on Thursday. 

The Richmond General Registrar is continuing to vet the petition signatures submitted by Goldman last month. The referendum will also need to be approved by a judge before it can be put on the November ballot.

The referendum is aimed at the special taxing zone, known as a tax increment financing district, which is a key part of how the city plans to pay for its $600 million share of the coliseum redevelopment. The city wants to use all new taxes generated in the TIF district to pay off construction costs. But if voters approve the Goldman's referendum, it would require that 51 percent of the new tax money go to schools instead.

The Richmond School Board has not taken an official position on the coliseum deal. 

After hearing the news of Burke’s lawsuit against the referendum, school board member Kenya Gibson posted her support for Goldman on Facebook. Gibson also called for a vote on the issue.

“There is no question that this project, poised to divert hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away from our schools and other public needs, is most certainly our lane,” she said.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has touted the redevelopment project as a net benefit for the city and its schools. The city estimates that the project, which would see the construction of 2,500 apartments; a new hotel; and a downtown GRTC bus depot in addition to a new coliseum, will generate around $1 billion in excess revenue. Stoney has committed to spending half of that on school modernization.

A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for August 15th. 

*A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson as "Kenya Dixon."