As Hanover County residents opposed to a 1.7 million-square-foot Wegmans distribution center planned near their homes await a decision on environmental permits, several state lawmakers have joined in the resistance.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain hopes to see its warehouse complex rise off Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads near Brown Grove, a rural African American community settled by freed slaves a few years after the Civil War.
Project boosters tout the 700 jobs expected as part of the $175 million project, which state and local officials first announced in December 2019 after extended private negotiations. But lawmakers joined with community residents and environmental activists Monday in slamming the project’s potential consequences during a news conference timed for the holiday honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
“We know that it is too often that our marginalized communities and communities of color bear the brunt of environmental racism and are disadvantaged by irresponsible development,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality delayed a decision on the permits in the fall after receiving “significant comments” from the public about the project’s impact on wetlands and the endangered historic community.
Several Brown Grove residents and descendants spoke Monday about how Interstate 95, a county airport and other industrial development has encroached on what they recalled as idyllic country land in the past 60 years.
“Water sweet as watermelon, fresh air and no noise. It was a wonderful place,” said Charles Morris, a descendant of one of the area’s original settlers, Caroline Dobson Morris, a woman born into slavery.
Many of the community’s residents trace their lineage to her.
Morris said Wegmans representatives have disregarded his memory of grave markers near the proposed development site decades ago. A federal regulator has said recent studies were unable to locate those graves, but further examination is being considered.
Others who spoke Monday also mentioned the potential environmental impact the project could have on water quality in private wells. They fear it could worsen flooding of nearby roads.
Original surveys for the 220-acre project site indicated that only 6.12 acres of wetlands would be disturbed by the construction. After residents questioned the method and timing of the original survey during a dry spell, the Army Corps of Engineers revised the estimated impact to 14.8 acres.
Renada Harris-Mickens, who grew up in the community, said the effect of an estimated 2,800 trucks and employee vehicles coming out of the 24-hour facility each day could cause unintended health problems — such as asthma, heart difficulties, lung disease and cancer — for area residents.
Patricia Hunter-Jordan, president of the Hanover County NAACP, said the facility may impact Brown Grove the same way urban development cleaved Jackson Ward, a historic African American neighborhood in Richmond, decades ago.
“This community is not opposed to corporate development,” she said. “We simply note that there are other options in Hanover that would not cause unnecessary harm to this community. Communities of color are tired of bearing the burden of progress for the profit of corporations.”
Wegmans officials say the company needs a new distribution center in the Mid-Atlantic region to accommodate about a dozen new stores and to relieve overcapacity at its distribution centers in New York and Pennsylvania.
The company evaluated several sites in Hanover before deciding Sliding Hill Road would be its best option, since the county designated the land for industrial use more than 25 years ago.
A Wegmans spokesperson said the company intends to move forward with the project as soon as all required permits are approved.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who is running for governor, on Monday noted that legislators have been working in recent years to create laws that would protect historic marginalized communities vulnerable to development.
“The time has come that we listen to these communities, preserve their history, and not just say that profit is the ultimate goal,” she said during the news conference. “We can look holistically and find other places to build new projects, like the Wegmans center, that don’t disrupt our history and our communities.”
Guzman, who is running for lieutenant governor this year, recently sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality urging state regulators to reject the revised environmental impact permit application for the project.
A regional director for DEQ did not respond to a request for comment Monday. A hearing date for Friday was recently canceled. A new hearing has not been scheduled.
Dels. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax; Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax; and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, also signed on to Guzman’s letter.
Rasoul, who also is running for lieutenant governor, said there are no legislative options to counter the Wegmans project at this stage, but hopes he and other lawmakers can influence regulators to give more consideration to the community’s concerns.