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City to begin statue removal process following court mandate

City to begin statue removal process following court mandate

Robert E. Lee statue

"BLM" and "TRAITOR" are seen spray-painted on the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park last week.

The city of Charlottesville has received an official mandate from the Supreme Court of Virginia, clearing the way for the removal of two downtown Confederate statues.

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court sided with the city in its appeal of a Charlottesville Circuit Court ruling that found that the City Council violated state code when it voted to remove the statues. The court ruled in part that a previous law preventing the removal of war monuments did not apply to statues erected before 1997, a view long held by city officials.

However, the April 1 opinion did not immediately clear the way for the removal process to begin, as a mandate was still needed to remove a 2019 permanent injunction Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore placed on the statues following a lawsuit.

According to city spokesman Brian Wheeler, the city received the mandate from the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.

“Today we received the Supreme Court’s mandate and very soon the Charlottesville City Council will issue a public notice of its intentions regarding the statues,” Wheeler said. He said city staff will discuss next steps with the City Council at its May 3 meeting.

In addition to formally removing the injunction Moore placed on the statues, the mandate also vacates more than $300,000 in attorney fees awarded to the plaintiffs, ending the lawsuit.

Filed on behalf of various area residents and a group dubbed The Monument Fund, the lawsuit claimed that the council’s vote to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee violated state code. The lawsuit was later amended to include a vote to remove the Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson following the Unite the Right rally.

Though the appeal ended the city’s legal woes, it also raised the question of whether the city would need to go through the removal process set out by the General Assembly.

The process is part of a change to the state code in 2020 that allows localities to remove war monuments and statues. Given the state Supreme Court’s opinion that code protections do not apply to statues erected before 1997, it was unclear whether the city would be required to follow this process.

However, according to Wheeler, it is anticipated that the City Council will reaffirm its intentions to remove the statues through the General Assembly’s statutory process.

That process requires localities to first publish a notice of intent in a newspaper, followed by a public hearing within 30 days and a called special meeting soon afterward.

After holding a special hearing, a locality must offer the monument or memorial for relocation and placement to any museum, historical society, government or military battlefield, and must wait 30 days before removal.

The language of the law gives the locality “sole authority to determine the final disposition of the monument or memorial,” indicating that the locality can grant possession of a statue to a private entity.

Albemarle County became one of the first localities in the state to remove a statue via the process, which began last July and ended with the September removal of the “At Ready” Confederate soldier statue in front of Albemarle’s Circuit Court. The statue was given to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, which took the statue from the site to a battlefield in the valley at no cost to the county.

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Sept. 12 removal of the “At Ready” statue, its base, two cannons, a pile of cannonballs and the lights around it cost the county about $60,800. There were additional costs for staff overtime, barricades and other items for the removal event. In total, the removal cost the county $106,000.

It remains to be seen how much it will cost the city to remove the Lee and Jackson statues, but a 2016 report estimated the price tags to be around $330,000 and $370,000, respectively.

Where the statues will be relocated also remains an uncertain question, with various public speakers during recent public comment urging the City Council not to give the statues to museums.

The Monument Fund, which previously has stated intentions to suggest locations for relocation, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Green burial grounds do not use embalming, have no plastic liners, concrete vaults or exotic wood caskets and do not have plastic memorials. Instead, they use biodegradable containers, and gravesites are marked with flat stones or native plantings.

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