After a five-hour public hearing Wednesday, the Hanover County Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 after midnight to accept new zoning conditions for a 220-acre property at the intersection of Sliding Hill and Ashcake Roads.
The decision clears a path for Wegmans to build a 1.7 million-square-foot distribution center there despite outcry from hundreds of neighbors.
Supervisors Faye Prichard, Angela Kelly-Wiecek and Sue Dibble voted against the changes, citing objections raised by project opponents.
“It is abundantly clear to me that faith in our local government has suffered greatly in this process,” Kelly-Wiecek said after the vote.
Opponents said they expected the board would approve the changes, and are still devising plans for how to appeal the decision in Circuit Court.
“We have 30 days to file an appeal,” said Chris French, a member of a coalition of neighbors opposed to the project. “Like I said, I would expect it.”
Supervisors who voted for the zoning changes said they didn’t want to impede the $175 million project and the 700 jobs it’s supposed to create. The Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain could have proceeded with modified plans regardless of the vote, a lawyer for Wegmans and county officials said.
Chairman Aubrey “Bucky” Stanley saw a choice between fostering development or rejecting it at the risk of a real estate tax increase.
“Thirty-seven years [on this board] and I’ve never voted for a tax rate increase. And I don’t plan to,” he said. “Hanover County needs jobs.”
Hundreds of nearby residents have voiced fears that the center will create congestion and quality-of-life issues while lowering neighboring property values.
Prichard and Kelly-Wiecek both represent the communities around the project site. Dibble said she could not ignore the massive opposition even though her South Anna District constituents are not directly affected.
“I will represent the will of the people,” she said.
The county announced the project in December alongside a state-supported $6.8 million incentive package the supervisors immediately approved, to the dismay of critics who wanted more public engagement.
Those concerns returned anew Wednesday as the county worked to balance government-mandated social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic with residents’ rights to weigh in.
About 20 people signed up to speak in opposition to the project; three community members spoke in favor of it.
County officials also read more than half of the 60 comments residents submitted by email and phone ahead of the meeting. Nearly all of them were opposed.
“I do take a little bit of satisfaction in county staff reading emails about how inept and unethical they were. But it left a lot to be desired from inflection and being able to read the room,” said Rod Morgan, a local resident opposed to the project.
While the property has been zoned for industrial use for three decades, Wegmans sought to amend special zoning conditions the county adopted in 1995 to protect the surrounding residential community.
In exchange for some allowances, such as taller building heights and light poles, Wegmans offered to create larger buffers between the property and surrounding roads and a requirement for its trucks to use only Sliding Hill Road. It also offered to help pay for road improvements in the area.
Supervisors who voted for the new proffers said they think it will help protect the community better than the current zoning conditions.
After the vote, Supervisor W. Canova Peterson sought to clarify that the county did not choose the location for the project.
He said that the county was competing with other states and localities through the Mid-Atlantic region to land the economic development deal, and that Wegmans chose the site after evaluating several locations the county marketed.
“There’s been too many insinuations of how this process took place. The fact of the matter is the county did not put Wegmans on this site,” he said. “It’s very important to note that nothing nefarious was going on whatsoever.”
Opponents of the project said they are considering an appeal of the county’s decision. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality also needs to approve a special permit for the project because there are protected wetlands on the property.
The state agency may choose to hold a public hearing on the permit application, per the request of residents in the area following an open comment period that ended last week.