Hanover County's Planning Commission has unanimously endorsed zoning changes for a Wegmans distribution center despite unwavering opposition from neighbors who say the project is the result of a closed-door deal that disregards the well-being of their community.
Proposed changes to the property’s zoning proffers, which the county approved in 1995, would help mitigate some potential problems, county planning officials say. But many residents remain leery of the project as the county works to fast-track final approvals so that construction can begin this spring.
After the Planning Commission's vote late Thursday, some in the audience shouted "We won't forget!" and "Remember to shop Henrico!" At the public hearing earlier in the meeting, about 20 people spoke against the project or the currently proposed proffers, with two people speaking in favor.
“The commission and staff are listening to citizens. We’re mindful of those concerns and working hard to address it,” Planning Director David Maloney said in an interview earlier Thursday. “We’re trying to improve what the current proffers permit.”
Since the announcement of the project in December, residents of communities along the Sliding Hill Road corridor have raised objections to the development of an up to 1.6 million-square-foot warehouse and office space that, at full build-out, would generate approximately 3,200 additional vehicle trips each day.
According to a traffic analysis by the county, the site would generate about 275 vehicle trips during each of the morning and evening rush hour periods.
But neighbors say it’s about more than just traffic congestion.
To incentivize the $175 million investment by Wegmans, a grocery chain based in Rochester, N.Y., the state and county are providing $6.7 million by way of grants and transportation and infrastructure improvements.
The Hanover Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 in December to approve the project incentives, about a year after county officials signed a nondisclosure agreement that precluded their constituents from discussions about how public resources would be used to lure the company.
“They made this backroom deal. The fix is in. It’s already been promised to Wegmans,” said Rod Morgan, a resident of the Fox Head subdivision, in an interview Tuesday.
“That would be the larger source of the anger,” added Morgan, who has been organizing his neighbors in opposition to the project
Faye Prichard was the only supervisor to vote against the project; Supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek was absent from the Dec. 11 meeting. The pair have remained subject to scrutiny, however, as residents have begun discussing recall petitions and have called on board members and county administrators to resign.
Although some residents have seen the process as an opportunity to potentially delay the project to continue negotiating proffers — or to block the project outright — County Attorney Dennis Walter said it cannot be used as a pretext for killing the state-sponsored development.
“Proffers are intended to help development fit within a community as a whole. They’re not poison pills to stop development,” Walter said at Thursday night’s meeting.
Under the new conditional zoning proposed for the 220-acre site east of the Hanover Air Park, Wegmans would adhere to several architectural design features and use restrictions, as well as a natural buffer along Sliding Hill Road. The company would provide up to $1 million to study and potentially install a traffic light or other traffic control measures at the intersection of Sliding Hill Road and New Ashcake Road.
“What is proposed … can go on this facility today without a single change in the proffers by right,” Andy Condlin, legal counsel for Wegmans, said at Thursday’s meeting. “However, it is appropriate to consider an adjustment if we can make the site function better and more efficiently so it can be better for [Wegmans], if at the same time we could have additional protections to make it better for the county and surrounding residents.”
In addition to the traffic impact, residents say they’re still concerned about noise and lights becoming a nuisance, as well as home values.
“I know for a fact that it will impact housing values within 2 miles of this facility,” Laurianne Freeman, a real estate appraiser who lives in the area, said at Thursday’s public hearing. “It’s not fair. We don’t want it in our neighborhood.”
Others in the area are concerned about how the project might impact a historic African American church across from the development on Ashcake Road.
Throughout the hearing Thursday, residents said Ashcake Road, where the Brown Grove Baptist Church is located, is prone to flooding and has seen numerous vehicle crashes and near accidents, arguing that heavy truck traffic would pose safety risks to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
“It’s a road that’s very dangerous,” Kenneth Spurlock, a deacon of the church, said of the road. “We ask that the county and Wegmans seriously consider the concerns we have.”
A proposed proffer also includes a provision that Wegmans would relocate any graves or cemeteries it finds during the course of the development under regulations by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The current zoning proffers for the site require that any burial remains be left intact, but Condlin said recent archaeological studies have found no evidence of any graves or cemeteries there.
The Hanover Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the proffer conditions next month.