After hearing hours of comments against the project on Friday, the Virginia Water Control Board narrowly approved an environmental impact permit for the Wegmans grocery chain to build a 1.7 million-square-foot distribution center in Hanover County.
The state board’s decision was another defeat for neighbors who are overwhelmingly opposed to the $175 million project, fearing that it will affect their quality of life and endanger a historic, rural Black community that was founded by freed slaves 151 years ago during Reconstruction.
The board voted 4-3 to approve the permit. Several members who voted for approval acknowledged that there are issues with the project, but noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still conducting its own review of the environmental impacts.
“Whether we decide to issue the permit ... it’s not going to mean that this project is going to go forward. It’s just going to mean we checked off the state end of it,” said Tim Hayes, a board member who voted to approve the permit. “There are still a number of issues the Corps and Hanover County have to deal with before this can go forward.”
Supporters tout the 700 jobs and new tax revenue that the project would create, but residents have remained staunchly opposed since local and state officials announced the proposal in December 2019.
After Hanover officials last spring approved zoning changes for the 220-acre property where the project would be located, at the intersection of Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads, residents continued to raise racial justice concerns and focused on the project’s environmental impact.
Over the past 14 months, community members have needed to learn more about wetlands, environmental protection policy, permitting and environmental justice in order to “regulate the regulators” and hold government officials accountable, said Kathy Woodcock, a resident who lives on Ashcake Road across from the project site.
Throughout the daylong board meeting that included an extended public comment period through Friday evening, residents said they feel that the company has needed to revise its application and information about the project and alternative sites too often, after coming under public scrutiny.
Members of the Brown Grove community said the development could rise over unmarked burial sites and the remains of an old school building associated with the Brown Grove Baptist Church. After years of encroachment from the Hanover Air Park and industrial development in the area, the residents worry that their community and history could be displaced further.
“They continue to have a negative environmental impact on the community,” said Atanya Lewis, a member of the church. “It should not be for sale for Wegmans’ future profit.”
Officials from the Department of Environmental Quality said earlier in the morning that they had received 462 comments against the permit, and only three in favor.
In response to the volume of public comments over the past year, federal regulators re-evaluated the project site last fall and measured approximately 30 acres of protected wetlands, about twice as much as Wegmans reported in its initial application.
Wegmans then resubmitted its permit application, but many area residents remain skeptical of the technical data and information in the revised application.
Water Control Board member James Lofton noted that an alternative project site that was considered could result in less environmental damage, with an estimated impact of half an acre.
In an interview after the meeting, Rod Morgan, who lives in the suburban development area across from the project on Sliding Hill Road, said he’s still hopeful that federal officials will reject the permit for the project at its current location.
The Army Corps of Engineers, he said, will “perhaps make a more informed decision.”