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. 

A Virginia board has narrowly approved a key permit for the Wegmans grocery chain to build a regional distribution center in Hanover County where opponents say it would destroy forested wetlands and negatively impact a historic Black community.

The 4-3 decision came from the State Water Control Board in late February despite significant opposition to the project. The permit allows the center planned for 219 acres in the rural county to impact what has been tallied as nearly 15 acres of wetlands.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, however, wrote in a statement that the permit entails “no-net-loss of state wetlands” by requiring the purchase of mitigation credits from a wetland bank. The DEQ wrote that the permit “ensures disturbed areas are restored and water quality standards in nearby streams will be maintained.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also be conducting an environmental review in the coming months of the $175 million food distribution complex. Some residents and groups that opposed the project are hopeful that process will subject the project’s potential environmental impact to further scrutiny.

Regarding potential legal challenges of the decision, Chris French, chairman of the Hanover County NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, said that “all options are on the table and people are evaluating those options.”

Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., says the 1.7 million-square-foot complex is needed to supply additional supermarkets in Virginia and to expand into North Carolina. County and state officials, including Gov. Ralph Northam, support the project for its promise of providing 700 good-paying jobs.

Wegmans

A Wegmans store at Hilltop Village Center in Alexandria, VA. (Amantio di Nicoloa, Creative Commons 3.0)

Opponents took issue with the project being planned for such a wetland-heavy location where it could impact water quality and the local community. They also cite environmental justice concerns for the residents of Brown Grove, which was founded by freed men and women after the Civil War.

Independent consultants recently recommended major changes to how the state environmental agency weighs environmental justice concerns in its decision-making process. But project opponents say they didn’t see much consideration of their concerns — including potential damage to onsite archaeological and grave sites — on this first major project to be considered after those changes were suggested.

Virginia legislators also have passed the Virginia Environmental Justice Act and created a Council of Environmental Justice to advise both the governor and an interagency work group focused on advancing the effort. The DEQ is in the process of hiring its first environmental justice director.

Roderick Morgan is a resident of the Fox Hill neighborhood adjacent to the development site and emerged as one of its earliest opponents when the plans were announced in late 2019. He said he was not surprised by the state board’s decision but was encouraged to have even three board members vote against the permit after a more than 9-hour virtual public meeting on the subject in late February. 

“I have to hand it to the community that — despite the long odds and the hill in front of us — we had almost five hours of comment from a variety of people,” he said. “We are not giving up.”

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. 

DEQ officials had postponed their decision on the project after receiving an overwhelming amount of public input. Of the 465 comments received on the water permit, only three were in favor of the permit’s approval, DEQ officials said.

A handful of state lawmakers also disapproved of the project in a letter in December to DEQ Director David Paylor, urging that the permit be denied on environmental justice grounds and because the wetlands weren’t properly assessed.

Morgan said he hopes the federal environmental process will dredge up more of the material he and others have found concerning about the project.

“I would say this isn’t the end of the road,” he said.

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