Hanover County officials say they will observe social distancing and limit participation on Wednesday during a long-awaited public hearing where 28 people are expected to attend to speak.
And speak, they will. Neighbors of a planned Wegmans distribution center who were dismayed when the county in December announced a $6.8 million incentive package to lure the project have spent the past five months making their concerns known.
Among them: hazardous traffic conditions and quality-of-life issues they fear will result from the Rochester, N.Y., company’s $175 million plans. But despite sustained protests, the chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, which is slated to vote Wednesday on the zoning amendment and special-use permit that would advance the project, says he expects the measures to pass.
“Economic development is our No. 1 priority,” Chairman Aubrey “Bucky” Stanley said in an interview Tuesday.
Chris French, a local resident who has been following the case closely, said the county’s approval of the zoning changes could trigger a legal challenge to the grocery chain’s plans for the 220-acre site at the intersection of Ashcake and Sliding Hill roads.
“I would expect it,” he said.
To proceed with the project, which includes up to 1.7 million square feet of warehouse space, Wegmans is asking the county to amend zoning conditions Hanover adopted for the property in 1995 to help protect the residential communities in the surrounding area.
Though Wegmans and county officials say the zoning changes will improve conditions for neighbors in exchange for certain allowances, such as taller building heights and light poles, residents of nearby subdivisions say the proposed changes are not a fair trade.
A report from the county’s planning staff that endorses approval of the zoning request says Wegmans will pay for road improvements and require its trucks to use Sliding Hill Road to access the property. The proposed site plan’s buffers between the development and the surrounding roadways would be much wider than what’s currently required under the special conditions.
Still, residents say Wegmans’ estimated 3,164 daily vehicle trips per day at full build-out, the noise from the property and the potential impact on the Brown Grove Baptist Church on Ashcake Road — where freed African American slaves settled after the Civil War — would be unbearable.
They also are concerned that recent studies to determine the impact on historic resources, such as unmarked graves and protected wetlands, are inadequate.
“I don’t see how the county or the state on any level can approve this,” French said.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, the county has struggled with when to schedule the vote after a March 25 hearing was postponed.
Residents and two of the county’s supervisors, Faye Prichard and Angela Kelly-Wiecek, have argued that the county should suspend the hearing until state officials say large gatherings are safe again.
Prichard and Kelly-Wiecek represent the communities in the area around the project site. The pair have been skeptical about fast-tracking the project over the concern and objections of their constituents.
The Board of Supervisors initially declined to postpone a hearing and vote scheduled for April 22, but later moved it to this Wednesday as a compromise between concerned residents and Wegmans, which had asked the county to hold it as soon as possible.
“Wegmans has been trying to advance the project as expeditiously as possible [as all applicants do] in order to break ground this spring so we can take advantage of better weather,” said Dan Aken, director of real estate and site development for Wegmans.
“We understand from the county that they are conducting regular business and hearing all applications as they would under normal conditions,” he said. “We don’t see why this project should be an exception, particularly because the county has a plan in place to deal with larger turnouts.”
In addition to permitting in-person comments, county officials will read from emails and voicemails it solicited for Wednesday’s hearing. Hanover spokesman Tom Harris said the county has received about 70 emails that will be entered into the meeting record.
Supervisor Canova Peterson said the county has about 30 pending zoning cases and that it must handle each one without special consideration.
The Wegmans case is the only one on the board’s docket Wednesday, but the agenda for its last meeting on April 15 featured six land-use cases.
“The citizens of Hanover County, applicants, proponents and opponents in all cases have a right to expect this Board to meet its obligation to address their concerns and to make decisions in a timely manner,” he said in a recent open letter. “This is what they elected us to do.”
Brian Buniva, a lawyer representing the residents, says the decision to hold the hearing and vote now infringes on the rights of citizens because the county is restricting participation based on Gov. Ralph Northam’s order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
“What the hell is the emergency?” he asked.