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Federal preservation advisory agency suggests more work be done to assess Wegmans' impact on historic community
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Federal preservation advisory agency suggests more work be done to assess Wegmans' impact on historic community

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One federal agency is urging another to take a deeper look at the impact of the planned Wegmans distribution center on Hanover County’s historic Brown Grove community, which was founded by freed slaves more than 150 years ago and now seeks national historic recognition.

In a five-page Sept. 23 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the 1.7 million-square-foot distribution center that Wegmans Food Markets Inc. plans to build, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation advised the Corps to “take additional steps to consider and address how the undertaking may affect the historic district and affect the ways that members of the community experience the historic district.”

The $175 million facility’s location at the intersection of Ashcake and Sliding Hill roads has outraged many who live near or adjacent to the site since the project was publicly announced in December 2019.

At the northern boundary of the property, along Ashcake Road, lies historic Brown Grove, where descendants of some of those earliest families still live. Brown Grove Baptist Church is located across Ashcake Road near where Wegmans’ employee entrance would be located, with employee estimates reaching upward of 700 people by 2026. The employee entrance is also near the site where the old Brown Grove school once stood.

The letter takes issue with Wegmans’ mitigation strategies being adopted by the Corps in August despite objections raised by the Brown Grove community that an assessment of the full impact of the project hadn’t been completed, nor had an environmental justice study been done.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation advises the president and Congress on policies related to the preservation, enhancement and sustainable use of national historic resources.

The mitigation plan was one requirement outlined in a memorandum of agreement that was executed in June among Wegmans, the Corps and the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office to allow the project to be in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

The mitigation plan was intended to address the adverse impact of the Wegmans project on Brown Grove — that an adverse effect existed was something that was agreed upon by the Corps and the state preservation office — as well as assist with community efforts to seek eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places.

The mitigation strategies required Wegmans to share with the community information about property ownership, titles and other research; that it use GPS equipment to clearly record all visible paths and trails currently crossing the property before vegetation removal or land clearing; and that it establishes a fund — Wegmans offered $12,500 — to support the research and documentation of Brown Grove’s architecture and history during efforts to be listed on the national historic register.

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On July 30, Wegmans’ mitigation plan was provided to the Brown Grove community and the Department of Historic Resources by the Corps.

An Aug. 2 letter from DHR to the Corps stated that while the agency’s opinion was that the plan “is generally consistent with our expectations regarding appropriate mitigation for the effects to” Brown Grove, it went further: “However, considering the nature of the effects of the District and its connection to the Brown Grove Community, DHR encourages the Corps to consider comments from the consulting parties, specifically the Brown Grove Community, when determining what mitigation is appropriate.”

An Aug. 8 letter from the Hanover NAACP, on behalf of Brown Grove, to the Corps expressed its disappointment with the mitigation plan, citing a “lack of information that would quantify the extent of the adverse effects” of the project on Brown Grove. It said a requested environmental justice assessment hadn’t been done, and that developing a mitigation plan without fully understanding those effects is “impossible.”

It further stated, among other things, that the “proposed plan lacks the necessary foundation to determine whether the proposed strategies are even appropriate.”

In response, on Aug. 9, the Corps acknowledged receiving the NAACP’s letter, but didn’t address its content.

On Aug. 30, the Corps notified DHR that it approved Wegmans’ mitigation strategies “having heard no suggestions for modification to the plan or what to do with the resources the plan offered.”

Taking into account all of those circumstances, the Sept. 23 letter from the ACHP explains, the Corps may have treated Brown Grove as a “static resource.” That means it looked at the community’s significance as associated only with past events rather than “ongoing cultural use, values and connections.”

However, Brown Grove “is inextricably linked to the community’s living, ongoing experience of the historic district and their sense of place, through activities at the church, family gatherings, community celebrations ... and day-to-day interactions among community members” whose families have been in the community for generations, the ACHP letter said.

It stated that Brown Grove was noted by consultants working with that community that the historic district “may be one of only two historic districts focused on communities developed by Free Blacks in Virginia.”

It said “the loss of historic properties is typically of great concern to those who ascribe significance to them and they cannot be replaced, whether by compensatory mitigation or otherwise,” and that “focusing solely on documentation of the resource does not address the potential for degradation of the historic district’s dynamic connection to the community.”

The letter called into question why the Corps didn’t do more with regard to the potential scenario of historic properties ahead of the June memorandum of understanding, saying “it is unclear why the potential for existence of an historic district was not more fully explored during the Corps’ effort to identify historic properties [in the affected areas of Brown Grove] prior to the execution of the MOA.”

It also echoed Brown Grove’s concerns about the lack of consideration given to environmental justice for Brown Grove, particularly because the Corps did not consider the encroachment by existing commercial and industrial development along Ashcake Road, including from a cement plant, a landfill, Hanover’s airport and an industrial park.

“Those earlier developments may have resulted in incremental and cumulative alterations to the setting and context of a community with historically limited ability to resist such development,” the letter said.

Todd Miller, chief of the Southern Virginia Regulatory Section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Division, and to whom the Sept. 23 ACHP letter was addressed, defended the Corps’ actions, saying it followed the regulations required under the National Preservation Act for reviews of historic properties. He said the subsequent mitigation plans were meant to help Brown Grove with its efforts to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Referencing the mitigation plans, “we put this out to the community and let the consulting parties look at it, and what we got back in response was, they weren’t going to talk about it,” Miller said. “They wanted the whole [National Historic Preservation Act review] started all over again, but we’re operating under a signed contract, a signed memorandum of agreement, that we were going to keep moving forward with it.”

Miller said the Corps works closely with the ACHP, and that leading up to the MOA, “we engaged them several times and they said no, we do not wish to participate.”

Their lack of participation, coupled with Brown Grove’s concerns, likely “sparked them to write the letter and want to question what we’re doing, and it’s fine that somebody wants to check up on us — we think we did a great job.”

Miller said the Corps is still reviewing the ACHP letter, and “we are going to answer them back, we just have not drafted the letter yet.”

He said a response will outline all that’s happened, “to make sure they understand where we came from — we followed [the National Historic Preservation Act]” according to the rules and regulations.

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The ACHP letter comes several weeks after community members and the Hanover NAACP walked the 219-acre Wegmans property looking for unmarked burials and other historic remnants of the Brown Grove community.

Miller called that meeting “very productive.” While nothing was found on the property that day, he said, Brown Grove residents helped Wegmans engineers and other personnel narrow the scope of potentially significant areas. He said that in the coming weeks, the community will hear from GPS experts who will be using ground-penetrating radar to go over the site to look for unmarked graves.

ACHP communications and public affairs specialist Lynne Richmond said the council’s involvement in the Brown Grove issue is the result of members of that community and the Hanover NAACP reaching out to the agency for help. She acknowledged that the agency had been asked months before to be part of the process leading up to the MOA, and declined to be involved.

When asked what happens next, and whether the letter will drive the Corps to further examine Brown Grove, Richmond said simply, “we’re not sure,” and noted that the Corps is responsible for decisions in cases under review for the National Historic Preservation Act.

Wegmans was originally scheduled to break ground by spring 2020 on three buildings at the Hanover site — one for dry goods, one for refrigerated perishable foods and yet another for frozen foods — and be operational by 2022. But intense public outcry and postponed votes by county leaders, partly due to COVID-19 in 2020, followed by delayed Department of Environmental Quality permitting, have stalled the process.

Wegmans has two grocery stores in the Richmond region and wants to build the giant distribution center to support the chain’s growth as it continues expanding into the South. The family-owned retailer came to Virginia in 2004 and now has 12 stores statewide, plus plans for at least six stores — one of which has opened — in North Carolina. The Hanover facility would be its third distribution center.

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