RICHMOND -- A handful of Virginia legislators are adding their names to an effort to dissuade the Department of Environmental Quality from issuing a permit allowing construction of a food distribution center on a site near the historic community of Brown Grove in Hanover County.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31, issued a press release earlier last month outlining her objections to the proposed permit approval and the environmental justice issues associated with the permit approval.
Wegmans announced late last year its intention to build the distribution center on 217 acres located near the Hanover Airport and adjacent to Brown Grove. Neighboring residents immediately organized to fight the project, citing those environmental concerns, disputed wetlands delineations, and other quality of life issues.
“For decades the Brown Grove community has faced industrialization — first a highway, then an airport, then a truck stop, then a suburban development, a concrete plant, a landfill, and now a 1.7 million-square-foot distribution center,” Guzman wrote in a social media post.
Guzman said the effects of such a massive project run deeper than just the physical destruction of the areas surrounding Brown Grove.
“This isn’t only about historic legacy, it’s also about the environment and quality of life for residents. The distribution center would destroy the wetlands surrounding the Brown Grove community, lower the air quality, create noise pollution, and bring increased traffic to the area,” Guzman said.
“The quality of life concerns are so bad that families fear their children will leave the area after generations of living in Brown Grove.”
Brown Grove is a community steeped in historical significance serving as home to a group of slaves freed shortly after the Civil War.
Guzman urged supporters to join her in signing a petition to oppose the application.
“Allowing the Wegmans Distribution Center to be built here would destroy over 150 years of history and the environment and air quality for the local community. We can’t allow this injustice to continue. Stop the industrialization of the Brown Grove community by signing our petition today,” she wrote on Facebook.
She contends the project should be delayed until environmental justice issues can be reviewed by the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.
In a letter to DEQ director David Paylor, Guzman urged that a revised permit not be issued for the project, citing the recent recalculation of wetlands on the property that would be affected by the project and the environmental justice concerns.
Original surveys indicated that only 6.12 acres would be disturbed by the construction, but revised estimates placed that number at 14.8 acres.
“The permit must be denied because the wetlands delineation incorrectly states the amount of wetlands impacted,” Guzman wrote in the letter.
At its December meeting, the State Water Control Board decided to schedule a special meeting regarding the Wegmans application on Jan. 22.
Del. Mark Keam, D-35; Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-86; and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-11; also signed on to Guzman’s letter, and others voiced support for the Brown Grove community.
“The food distribution center has the opportunity to bring jobs to Hanover County, but it must be located in a place that respects community voices, history, and the environment,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan. D-9, said in a press release.
Brown Grove was founded by freed slave Caroline Morris, and many of the current residents trace their family roots to Morris. For almost 150 years, the Brown Grove Baptist Church has been the centerpiece and gathering spot for the community.
Kim Harris-Washington is a descendant of Morris and said the impending intrusion will alter lifestyles and destroy a storied culture.
“Please don't allow this under-represented African American community to fall by the wayside. Some land AIN'T MEANT to be developed. Don't erase 150 years of Black Family Heritage,” she said in a press release.
Bonica Cottman is the great-great-granddaughter of Caroline Dobson Morris, known as the mother of Brown Grove and lived 93 years in the community.
“Brown Grove may not mean much to other people, but it means the whole world to the people that live here. In the Brown Grove Community, we have endured many obstacles and have had to FIGHT just to remain a community and not conform to becoming a business industrial area,” Cottman said.
The efforts to spotlight environmental justice issues are supported by the Hanover NAACP and Sunrise RVA, both calling for an Environmental Justice Review.
“The Hanover County NAACP stands with our neighbors in the Brown Grove community and are pleased we can amplify their voices,” said Chris French, Environmental Justice Committee chair of the Hanover County NAACP. “We share the concern this community will be disproportionately impacted by the proposed Wegmans’ Distribution Center.”
French voiced added concerns regarding the wetland delineations included in the application. Although the areas affected have doubled with re-examinations, French said he thinks the impacts could still be underestimated.
A recent visit to property adjacent to the proposed Wegmans site revealed areas that, in French’s estimation, could be considered wetlands. French said he found signs of sphagnum moss, a noted indicator of wetland areas.
“We also have deep concerns regarding the flawed proposed wetlands permits and the lack of proper surveys to locate long known about unmarked graves,” French said. “While we remain opposed to the proposed Wegmans’ industrial facility at this location, we look forward to finding common ground solutions with state leaders that will allow a win-win for all interested parties.”
Opponents of the project have long contended the environmental justice was discounted in the early approval process, but grassroots efforts have focused attention on the Brown Grove community.
A lawsuit dismissed earlier this year filed by five defendants affected by the proposed project has been refiled, according to sources close to the case, and groups opposing the permit approval continue to plan for the yet officially unannounced meeting in January.
In an email obtained by The Mechanicsville Local, DEQ officials discussed the possibility of a postponement to the January meeting, citing a need to consult with the Attorney General’s Office and the possibility that more information could be required from the applicant.
The email also listed time needed to respond to public comments and prepare a presentation for the SCWB meeting in addition to loss of time due to the holidays.