SLIDESHOW: Varina's future
When Nelda Snyder grew up near the James River in eastern Henrico County in the 1940s, going to the city meant a long trip through the country on roads so narrow that cars almost scraped sides when they passed.
She still lives at Arrahatteck, named for the Indians who lived there before the first English settlers arrived in the early 1600s, but at age 73 she finds her idyllic slice of woodland situated between an interstate and a toll road.
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Change is coming. It's as clear as the rumble of truck traffic in the distance and the for-sale sign on a soybean field.
How it will affect the rural areas of the Varina District has been one of the hot topics in the 2026 Comprehensive Plan, which is up for final approval Tuesday by the Henrico Board of Supervisors. Envision Henrico and the Partnership for Smarter Growth have asked supporters to attend the meeting to protest redesignation of Varina Farm for Suburban Mixed Use development.
In response to residents' concerns, county planners have recommended adding agriculture as an economic objective in the plan and backing it up with policies that support agriculture for current and future generations.
William Gallmeyer, 72, would appreciate the help. He's one of the few farmers still trying to survive in eastern Henrico. When he grew up on Millers Lane, he could count the nearby houses on one hand and knew everybody who lived in them.
Now, White Oak Village shopping center is at the end of the street where he operates his farm stand. Housing developments encroach on his 97 acres. He rents about 250 additional acres to plant more strawberries, pumpkins and vegetables.
"New people that move in the area, a lot of them are customers here," he said as he showed rows of tomato plants. "That part is good, as far as the population increase. But they're taking away the farmland. Development is taking over the East End as well as it does in the West End.
"It's a piece here and a piece there that's still left," he said. "Every year, I lose another one.
"Farming is my life. It's always been my love, but it is more or less a labor of love. You're not going to get rich, and you're lucky if you survive."
Because of Varina's historic sites, environmental protected areas and parkland, eastern Henrico will never be as densely developed as western Henrico. Almost 23 percent of the 81,000 acres in the district are protected in some way, said Planning Director R. Joseph Emerson Jr. About 31 percent remain zoned as rural residential/prime agricultural in the 2026 plan, compared with 36 percent in the 2010 plan. Combining the two agricultural designations into one category caused concerns, however.
"The big fear among Varinians," Nelson said, "is they don't have prime agriculture in its original form put into the comprehensive plan. To many, even though it may not be intentional, it seems to say, 'Here is the checkered flag for the development of Varina similar to areas of the county already developed.'
"To us, that is not an acceptable way to go."
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Snyder's path into the city illustrates the changes that have already taken place. She still follows the two-lane Osborne Turnpike, but now it takes her past more small-acreage houses than farm fields. If already-approved communities are built along the river corridor, thousands of new residents will arrive within the next five years at Tree Hill and Wilton on the James.
As originally planned, both communities already would have been under construction by now, but continuing economic problems in the county and the nation have put such big housing developments in limbo.
Wilton, located where the Pocahontas Parkway (state Route 895) crosses the James River, is on hold until the economy improves, said Daniel T. Schmitt, president of HHH Communities. He denied rumors that the property is for sale.
"We, like anyone else, have listened to people that have expressed interest in the property," he said. "If something made sense for our company, we may pursue that. As of this moment, it's not on the market. Our overwhelming desire is to move that project forward and develop that within the next two or three years."
At Tree Hill, which is closer to the city on Osborne Turnpike and adjacent to Rocketts Landing, "we're being patient to let the housing market recover," said Russell T. Aaronson III, president of Gray Land and Development Co. "I would not call us on hold. We're working with the county on a daily basis to work through the infrastructure challenges. We're as high on the project as we've ever been."
Henrico requires developers to widen roads and extend water and sewer lines needed for their projects. Along the state Route 5 corridor, "it is all undersized for everything they've envisioned for Varina," Aaronson said
"We're still working through the infrastructure and waiting for the market to define itself," he said. "It may be we're on the brink of a new lifestyle. The days of McMansions may be over for a while."
So far, the major development on the property has been a six-figure investment in stabilizing the manor house. Workers have rebuilt part of the brick foundation and replaced the roof and many of its supporting beams.
Plans for Tree Hill call for 2,770 single-family homes, townhouses and condos; 1.16 million square feet of office and commercial space; and 250 acres of open space on a 531-acre parcel. A few million-dollar houses will command the ridge line with its view of the city, but most of the project will be in the range of $200,000 to $400,000, Aaronson said. Wilton on the James has plans for 3,209 homes on its 1,200 acres, also with a commitment to open space.
Adding that many commuters to Route 5 could create serious traffic tie-ups heading into Richmond.
"You can't widen the city streets in Richmond. There's no room to do that," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Northern Virginia and a Richmond resident. County planners anticipate that Wilton residents, because they'll have an interchange on Pocahontas Parkway, will pay the toll to cross the river to Interstate 95 north.
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To Nelda and her husband, Buzz Snyder, who have protected more than 100 of their 150 acres from development through a conservation easement, the two planned communities are "good development and in a good spot. Wilton was beautifully planned. I would rather see that built there than a lot of other things."
Developments like Tree Hill and Wilton are supported by two new land-use categories added to the proposed 2026 Comprehensive Plan. Though both of those developments were created by modifying the zoning for Urban Mixed Use projects, the two new categories of Traditional Neighborhood Development and Suburban Mixed Use will compactly mix housing with office/retail space and require 15 percent to 20 percent open space.
The new classifications have been applied to all of the land along the river between the Tree Hill and Wilton. Where Interstate 295 crosses the river, Varina Farm also has been designated Suburban Mixed Use. Curles Neck Farm, at the eastern end of Route 5, is still designated as rural residential/prime agricultural land, which would require 1-acre lots if it were developed. County planners point out that the land-use plan does not change current zoning of any of the properties.
Varina Farm's change in land use has generated the most heat.
On the one hand, Andy Edmunds, who works as location manager for the Virginia Film Office and lives near Osborne Landing, says he wants to protect "this unique nature of Varina being so rural within such close proximity in the urban area." Yet, he recognizes that "you've got 895 and 295 coming across the river. To deny that the intersection exists is kind of silly. [The plan] just spells out that something's going to happen at those cross-points."
On the other hand, Varina Farm is an active farm surrounded by agricultural land. Just a mile upriver, the Snyders object to the possibility of development so close to them and so far from anything else.
"It's leapfrogging," Nelda Snyder said. She and others have campaigned unsuccessfully for a program allowing the purchase of development rights to provide income for farmers while protecting agricultural areas from development.
To Nicole Anderson Ellis, who lives along the Osborne Turnpike between 295 and 895, the change at Varina Farm means "I would then be considered infill. Once there's high density beyond you, you're out of luck," she said.
Gatewood Stoneman, whose family has owned Varina Farm for nearly 100 years, said she had no plans to sell or develop the property, but if it is ever developed "they ought to thank us for wanting something a little bit nicer than what's going in all the time."
Henrico's rich history has the attention of Henry Nelson, 66, who grew up in Varina.
The second English settlement in Virginia was at Henricus in eastern Henrico, now part of Chesterfield County because of a change in the river channel. When John Rolfe married Pocahontas and discovered that money could be made from tobacco, it was in eastern Henrico. Civil War battles in eastern Henrico protected the Confederate capital of Richmond from federal troops.
Nelson wants the comprehensive plan to support a historic-preservation ordinance that would require historic-property owners to give notice before they destroy a site so others can save it.
The Snyders also cite history as a reason for keeping Varina the way it is.
"The pattern for everywhere is growth," Nelda Snyder said, "but I hope that here in Henrico the supervisors and the majority of the citizens value preserving other things just as much as they do having good growth -- preserving farms, preserving spaces that make the growth a good place to be and don't destroy it."
Contact Katherine Calos at (804) 649-6433 or email@example.com.