MECHANICSVILLE -- More than 800 Hanover County residents packed the lunchroom at Oak Knoll Middle School Thursday evening for a community meeting regarding the proposed 1.1 million-square-foot Wegmans Distribution Center near Sliding Hill and New Ashcake Roads just east of the Hanover County Airport.
Representatives from Wegmans and county officials fielded questions from residents of several neighborhoods located close to the proposed development regarding traffic, safety property values, and quality of life.
The Hanover County Planning Commission will hear Wegmans’ application for an adjustment of proffers later this month. The 217-acre site was zoned M-1 in 1995.
“The takeaway for us is that there are a couple of dozen key concerns that were documented that we are going to sit down and address and try to make this a project that’s better for everybody,” said Dan Aken, director of real estate and site development for Wegmans, following the meeting.
Aken explained the company’s decision to locate a new warehouse facility at the Hanover location.
The Rochester, New York-based company currently operates 101 stores, the majority located in the Northeast corridor.
The proximity to Interstate 95 and the fact that the property was “already zoned” were major factors in the company’s decision to locate in Hanover.
Recently opened stores in Maryland and Virginia are indicative of the company’s move to the Southern market, and the new facility will supply existing stores in that region, as well as new stores opening at a rate of two to three per year.
Wegmans currently operates warehouse facilities in Rochester and Pottsville, Pennsylvania. When opened in 2022, the Hanover facility will service about 44 stores, some of them yet to be built.
More than two dozen speakers patiently waited a turn to express their concerns with the project, some questioning the decision to locate in what they considered a residential area. The proposed site along Sliding Hill Road is close to several neighborhoods, including Somerset and Milestone.
“We don’t want you here,” one attendee shouted.
Some speakers identified other sites more suitable, in their opinion, for the facility, and a majority expressed concerns regarding truck traffic on an already hazardous road. Wegmans has agreed to fund upgrades to the intersection and road improvements, but neighboring residents said it would not alleviate delays and accidents.
Aken said the company explored about 15 sites in Virginia and North Carolina, but ultimately decided Hanover “was the best location” to make the $175 million investment, including about $6 million in local and state enticements. Plans for the facility include two buildings occupying about 1.1 million square feet of space.
Some speakers questioned the wisdom of spending taxpayer money as an incentive to lure Wegmans to Hanover, but County Administrator Rhu Harris said the agreement is guided by a performance agreement that requires the company to meet certain requirements prior to that funding being released.
Harris said annual tax revenue from the 700-employee facility amounted to about $1.5 million annually and noted the county’s contribution would be recouped in about three and a half years.
Other speakers asked why residents were not informed earlier when negotiations began months ago. Harris said the county signed a non-disclosure agreement with the search firm representing Wegmans and could not discuss ongoing talks, a practice described as normal when large companies explore options in localities.
If the county chose not to enter the NDA, Harris said Hanover would not have been considered for the new facility.
Planning director David Maloney said the site received special zoning in 1995, but noted proffers issued at the time are not “outdated” and the revised proffers are an attempt to “enhance those requirements.”
An attorney representing Wegmans said the applicant is requesting two changes to the more than a dozen existing proffers, including one to increase height on light poles and the other permitting a fence around the property.
Economic development director Linwood Thomas said the Wegmans project is a major get for the county in more ways than one.
“The Wegmans project is a generational opportunity for Hanover County,” Thomas said. “They will create jobs on average that are 18% above Hanover’s median average wage and be one of our largest taxpayers at full build-out. There were many localities along the Eastern Seaboard that competed for this project.”
But Anita Philp said she felt a “sense of betrayal” regarding the deal. “We’re giving them $6 million to ruin our way of life. I’m outraged,” Philp said. “What your are proposing is inconsistent with the plan. I’m not saying not in my backyard. I’m saying not in anybody’s backyard.” She estimated that there are 5,000 residential homes near the proposed site.
“We understand and respect there are some citizens that are upset due to the proximity to residential developments but the property has been zoned, marketed, and shown in our comprehensive plan for economic development for over 20 years,” Thomas said in response to questions after the meeting.
Chickahominy District supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek and Ashland District representative Faye Prichard hosted the informational meeting, but most board members attended in addition to other officials from the Planning Commission and other boards.
When Henry District supervisor Sean Davis was confronted by one speaker asking what the board was prepared to do to protect residents from large development like Wegmans, he didn’t underestimate the importance of the project and the challenges it presents.
“The matter before the current board is one that presents a very unique opportunity to reduce the allowable uses from the 1995 zoning,” Davis said. “If the board can negotiate with Wegmans to implement new preferred conditions that will substantially reduce the allowable use, it will be a huge reduction on what is allowed and also substantially improve traffic impacts.”
He said his presence at the meeting illustrated his desire to make the project better with additional public input and discussion. “If these negotiations are unsuccessful, then the land use allowances from the 1995 zoning will stand,” Davis said.
Reinforcing those outdated proffers also allows additional review of a project that could proceed with no adjustments. “Wegmans could develop the property today based on the current zoning but has taken the recommendation of the board of supervisors, county staff, and citizens to go through a public rezoning and proffer amendments that will make this a better project and includes increased buffers and transportation improvement as the proffers from 1995 would be less restrictive in some regards,” Thomas said regarding the application.
Speakers at the less than cordial gathering also cited concerns regarding property values and the negative effect a warehouse facility could present, but company officials said studies in Rochester indicate no such trend.
Aken said property values in those surrounding neighborhoods had increased 2 percent a year, a normal growth rate for residential housing.
One audience member shouted, “I’ll bet our assessments don’t go down.”
Concerned residents have requested further meetings with Wegmans to address concerns, and many asked for a deferral to allow more time to identify options.
A flyer passed out by project opponents at the meeting stated, “Work with Us, Wegmans!” and listed a number of requests, including further traffic studies, lighting surveys, and increased buffers.
The Planning Commission will consider the case at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 20. At that time, the panel could recommend approval, denial or defer the request.