Stiff opposition to a proposed $175 million Wegmans regional food distribution complex in Hanover County, VA, has spurred officials to seek more public input on a revised draft water permit. The revision includes a new calculation that more than doubles the amount of wetlands that could be impacted or destroyed.

Descendants of Caroline Morris In Brown Grove, VA

Charles Morris, Carolyn Blake and Bonnie Cottman (left to right) are among those criticizing a plan to build a food distribution complex in Brown Grove, VA. They are descendants of Caroline Morris, a freedwoman who helped found the community during Reconstruction. 

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will accept new comments through Dec. 4, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through Nov. 16. The DEQ will also host an electronic public hearing on Nov. 19, while the Corps hasn’t decided if a new hearing is necessary.

The 1.7 million-square-foot complex would be built on 217 acres in the town of Ashland that contains forested wetlands and abuts residential neighborhoods and the historic rural black community of Brown Grove.

The project enjoys the full-throated support of county officials and Gov. Ralph Northam, who tout the additional tax revenue and the promise of 700 full-time, good-paying jobs.

Wegmans Food Markets says the new facility is crucial to its ability to supply additional supermarkets in Virginia and its planned expansion into North Carolina.

But Ashland residents and conservation groups object to the destruction of wetlands and potential damage to onsite archaeological and grave sites, heavy truck traffic on local roads, environmental justice concerns, and what they perceive as minimal transparency in the permitting process.

Wegmans requested a water permit for the project a year ago and reportedly has already spent more than $2 million in the process. The State Water Control Board had planned to take up the matter at its September meeting, but after a public outcry postponed a decision so the Corps of Engineers could perform additional site work.

No one seems pleased with the process so far.

In August, the DEQ and the Department of Historic Resources wrote to reassure Wegmans that Virginia remains committed to the plan and to “ensuring that this project avoids, minimizes, and mitigates damage to wetlands … and the appropriate and respectful treatment of archaeological sites and any unanticipated impacts to previously unidentified human burials.”

Also in August, a frustrated member of Air Park Associates, which owns the proposed development site, wrote the Corps of Engineers saying he fears the consequences should the permit continue to be delayed or denied outright.

“We believe the very likely consequence will be that Wegmans will withdraw from its contract and start a new search for another location for its distribution center in another state,” James W. Theobald wrote.

Wegmans had earlier considered and evaluated alternative sites in the Richmond area, including two others in Hanover County, but dismissed them as more costly or more environmentally damaging.

But opponents claim the search for sites has been tainted by bad information, including a flawed wetlands delineation, which they believe continues to undercount the amount of wetlands that will be destroyed or impacted by the project.

Members of Protect Hanover

Rod Morgan and Chris French, members of Protect Hanover, stand across from the site of the proposed the Wegmans distribution center in Hanover County, VA. 

“The Corps didn’t do Wegmans any favors by screwing this up, first of all,” Roderick Morgan said. Morgan is a resident of the Fox Hill neighborhood adjacent to the development site. “We don’t have any degree of faith that they’ve appropriately measured the wetlands, but Wegmans made a number of decisions based on there being less wetlands on this property than there are. And that’s not fair to them, either.

“We tried to tell the Corps that. We tried to tell Wegmans that. We tried to tell DEQ that. But they let this process get pretty far into it before they would acknowledge it.

“The problem is, this is a really wonderful facility. There’s really no reason it shouldn’t be built. There’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be built in Hanover County. They just chose the wrong piece of ground to put it on.”

The Corps, which must permit construction on wetlands, initially employed the rarely used “mosaics” method for its wetlands delineation. The mosaics method basically ascribes percentages of wetlands to non-wetlands in a given parcel, rather than declare the entire parcel one or the other.

Elaine Holley at the Corps of Engineers has said she used that method because the site was so difficult to assess, with uneven topography pocked with very small wet areas next to drier uplands.

For the revised draft Virginia Waters Protection Permit, the Corps dropped the mosaics method, and the amount of wetlands that could be impacted or destroyed from just over 6 acres to nearly 15 acres. Hydrology on a given site can also change naturally over time.

Todd Miller, chief of the Southern Virginia Regulatory Section of the Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, said they performed additional field work in response to comments from the first public notice.

“And [we] found that the hydrology on the site presented differently than our first visit,” Miller said. “After our additional work, we decided it was more accurate to call the two mosaic areas all wetlands.”

He said they’ll look at potential primary and secondary impacts to wetlands and streams both on– and off-site to identify the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative for Wegmans and the site.”

The search for unmarked graves continues, he said, and any actions to preserve or relocate them will be addressed through a memorandum of agreement in the permit, if one is issued.

Charles Morris in Brown Grove, VA

Charles Morris, who grew up in Brown Grove, VA, is among those opposing a Wegmans distribution complex that may be built there. 

Chris French, chairman of the Hanover County NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, is calling for suspending the public comment period until all relevant materials used in the permit review process are made public, and until the Corps properly and openly discloses an “official process for addressing the environmental injustice issues affecting Brown Grove.”

Bonnica Cotman, representing the Brown Grove Community, agrees. She contends the Corps still hasn’t properly assessed the impact of the proposed development on the black community, which was founded by freedmen and women after the Civil War.

“There are lives here in the Brown Grove community,” Cotman wrote to William T. Walker of the Corps of Engineers in October. “Real people with real roots from their ancestors woven into the soil of this community. Brown Grove may not mean much to other people, but it means the whole world to the people that live here.”

Jaime Robb, manager of the DEQ office of stormwater management, said the agency has been transparent, reaching out to community leaders, responding to FOIA requests, making materials available on its website, answering questions via phone calls, and communicating with the public through newspapers and social media. On Oct. 19, the Corps held a public meeting at Brown Grove Baptist Church on its work to locate unmarked graves.

Robb said the DEQ considered public comments and concerns when it revised the draft permit, which it “believes is in conformance with the state laws and regulations.”

The State Water Control Board is expected to take final action on the permit at a regular or special meeting after the public comment period closes.

For information and instructions on submitting comments to the DEQ, go to https://www.deq.virginia.gov/programs/water/wetlandsstreams/publicnotices.aspx

For instructions on submitting comments to the Corps, go to https://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Media/Public-Notices/Article/2381594/nao-2012-02369/

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