HANOVER — More than 40 speakers urged the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to deny the issuance of a Wetlands permit for a 217-acre site that recently was approved for a Wegmans’ Distribution Center.
The Hanover County Board of Supervisors approved the project in May, but the project still requires a DEQ permit to proceed.
Jaime Robb, permit manager for DEQ’s Piedmont Division, said the agency rarely denies applications although some require adjustments during the process.
“They rarely are denied,” she said in an answer to a question at the Monday, July 20, public hearing.
DEQ scheduled the public hearing after receiving an avalanche of inquiries from concerned citizens who have questioned the process surrounding the application. Many contend the actual wetlands acreage is much larger that Wegmans contends.
But, company officials said they relied on the expertise of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a process also endorsed by Robb.
She did, however, acknowledge the DEQ has the right to conduct its own delineation process. “It’s common practice to accept the Corps study,” Robb said.
Although DEQ will issue a recommendation in late August, the final decision rests with the state’s Water Control Board, which is scheduled to meet on Sept. 24 and issue a final ruling on the permit.
Although’s DEQ’a purview is limited to wetlands and other environmental impacts, many commenters pointed to an obvious example of racial inequity and a lack of environmental justice for the residents of the Brown Grove Community.
Residents of that 150-year-old community contend their ancestors, freed slaves emancipated after the war, are buried on the proposed site. They also identified a section of the property as the site of the historic Brown Grove School.
Other commenters noted the historical infringement on the Brown Grove area that included construction of Interstate 95, a cement plant, a landfill and finally the Hanover Airport.
Some of those projects required land being acquired from Brown Grove that resulted in relocations for many families in the area.
“What was a tight-knit community is on longer tight”, said Renata Harris, who grew up in Brown Grove. Her ancestral home is now bordered by the Wegmans’ project in the backyard, and the Air Park in the front.
And while the social justice issues were noted by many commenters during the virtual hearing, the key element in the opposing speakers presentation was the process by which the wetlands were designated.
Most asserted that the estimates submitted were far below the actual acreage designated as wetlands.
DEQ requires that wetlands impacted by a project must be mitigated, or replaced with compensatory credits purchased from a Wetlands Mitigation Bank.
DEQ officials accepted Wegmans evaluation that 12.01 compensation credits were required, and the applicant presented documentation those credits could be acquired from an approved source.
The compensatory credits were calculated on delineation reviews prepared by the Corps that identified a total of 6.12 impacted acres on the site.
Robb said several federal and state agencies reviewed those results and “had no objection.”
But many commenters asked how those estimates could have decreased so dramatically when studies done months earlier identified more impacted acres. Some referred to the deletions as “missing Wetlands.”
Others questioned a rarely used method of delineation that could explain those diminished numbers. Corps delineation specialist Elaine Holly utilized a mosaic method, a practice that depends on determining the percentage of water in the ground, to conduct that final study.
In emails obtained through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests submitted by concerned citizens, Holly concedes the site is “difficult.”
Weedon Cloe is a wetlands scientist and a resident of Forest Lake Hills who has been active in the opposition to the Wegmans‘ project. He questioned the mosaic methodology and the subjective nature of its results.
“The issue at hand is that the protocol and results by which the wetlands mosaics were identified were not presented in the delineation report,” Cloe said. “The mosaic percentages obtained and reported were based entirely on subjective judgments rather than …. evidence.”
Brett Blose pointed out inconsistencies in earlier wetlands delineation studies and the final version presented to DEQ for consideration contending a reduction of impact from 18 acres to six.
“DEQ is basing their recommendation to approve this project on the flawed map produced by the Corps contrary to procedures outlined in the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) manual,” Blose said.
John Lain, an attorney from McGuire, Woods representing Wegmans, conceded that mosaic wetlands are difficult to delineate and said his client relied on the best information available.
“These are hard spots to delineate,” Lain said. “One of the most important pieces of that guidance (contained in the Corps manual) says ‘that in general wetlands determination on difficult or problem sites must be based on best information available to the field inspector interpreted by his or her professional experience and knowledge and the ecology of wetlands in the region.’ I think that is exactly what happened in this case,” Lain said.
He defended Holly’s expertise in the delineation process, citing her three decades of experience as a wetlands delineator.
Lain also addressed concerns voiced by many speakers regarding the environmental injustice pertaining to the Brown Grove community. Some who spoke during last week’s hearing said impacts on that historic community were largely ignored during the approval process.
“Wegmans wants to be a good neighbor to all of its neighbors,” Lane said. “Specifically, they reached out to the Brown Grove community in February and met with some of the members of the Brown Grove Church to address concerns where it can,” Lain said.
Increased buffering, the elimination of back-up beepers to reduce noise concerns and a revamped entrance were some concessions provided by Wegmans to address concerns, according to Lain.
He also addressed concerns regarding unmarked graves on the property, and said no physical or historical evidence to support those claims were discovered on the property. He described oral accounts of residents recollections of burial sites as anecdotal.
If human remains are discovered during construction, the attorney said Wegmans would follow state guidelines when dealing with that situation. A project archaeologist will be on-site during the construction, according to Lain.
Charles Morris, who lives along Egypt Road in the Brown Grove community, said he’s sure there are graves located on the site, and said he recalls them from his childhood.
He also expressed concerns about flooding, runoff and pollution and the effect it would have on Brown Grove residents who depend on well water.
Bonnica Cottman, another resident of Brown Grove who spoke at the hearing, voiced concerns regarding wildlife that could include endangered species on the site.
“I saw a bald eagle in my backyard,” she said.
She also described that meeting with Wegmans and said only five people, including herself, attended, two of which were landowners in the community. “They have not reached out to the community,” Cotman said. “They told us this was a done deal.”
Chris French, chairman of Hanover’s NAACP Environmental Committee and an Ashcreek resident, said referring to Brown Grove, “Environmental justice has not even been dealt with as a part of this entire effort.”
Rod Morgan, another resident of the area who has been active in efforts to prevent the construction, indicated efforts to encourage Wegmans to take a closer look at Brown Grove fell on deaf ears.
“At a meeting earlier this year, I encouraged Mr. [Dan] Aken and Wegmans to refer their proposal to the EJ council for review and recommendations to avoid disparate impacts on the Brown Grove Community,” Morgan said. “Mr. Aken advised that Wegmans has no interest in doing so, and that the Brown Grove community has no concerns about this project.