‘We’re just tired of having our communities destroyed’: Hanover NAACP and Protect Hanover file lawsuit in Wegmans distribution battle
by Holly Prestidge, May 5, 2021
Environmental justice, wetlands protection and questionable consideration of alternative sites are the subject of a lawsuit filed late last month by opponents of a controversial Wegmans distribution center planned for Hanover County.
In the ongoing 18-month battle between Hanover residents and Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., the Hanover NAACP and Protect Hanover Inc., a citizens’ group, have joined forces to ask the Richmond Circuit Court to suspend and set aside a permit approved on Feb. 26 for Wegmans by the Virginia Water Control Board.
The permit allows the destruction of at least 15 acres of wetlands on the planned 220-acre site, located on a wide wedge of land at the intersection of Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads, about two miles east of the Atlee-Elmont exit off Interstate 95.
In addition to the state’s water control board permit, a separate environmental review is underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It must also issue a permit in order for the project to proceed.
At nearly 1.7 million square feet, the $175 million distribution center, which Hanover’s Board of Supervisors approved nearly year ago despite fierce opposition from hundreds of neighbors on both sides of that property, would offer upwards of 700 jobs by 2026.
The lawsuit names the water control board and its regulatory parent, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, including specifically VDEQ Director David K. Paylor, as respondents, as well as Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans and Air Park Associates, LP, which owns the land.
The location of the Wegmans site has angered many who live near or adjacent to the site since it was publicly announced in December 2019, including those who live in or near the historic Brown Grove community along Ashcake Road to the north of the property. The largely Black community was founded more than 150 years ago by freed slaves and within it, a community hub, the Brown Grove Baptist Church, is located across Ashcake Road where Wegmans’ proposed employee entrance would be located.
By issuing the permit, the suit says the respondents “failed to ‘further environmental justice and enhance public participation'” with Brown Grove residents, and that the environmental justice review that was done was “insufficient” to allow for “meaningful involvement” of the NAACP and its members, especially those who live in Brown Grove, as is required by the permitting agencies.
Further, residents along Ashcake Road contend that standing water is already a problem along the thoroughfare, particularly in winter when those large areas of standing water freeze over and cause accidents. The suit alleges that the land disturbance caused by the development of buildings and parking lots “will exacerbate the flooding and icing” and create additional safety hazards.
To the south of the property, homeowners along Sliding Hill Road and those in subdivisions like Fox Head and AshCreek say that the destruction of those 15 acres of non-tidal wetlands on the proposed site plan will have an adverse effect on nearby Totopotomoy Creek. With no wetlands to slow the storm water drainage from the site, homeowners say the creek’s water quality will go down, while the creek itself could flood worse within the surrounding neighborhoods than it does now.
That’s on top of concerns about increased noise and air pollution from the estimated 800 diesel tractor trailer trucks coming and going from the truck entrance along Sliding Hill Road, traffic from more than 3,100 additional vehicle trips per day and light pollution from the facility’s around-the-clock operations.
Hanover NAACP President Patricia Hunter-Jordan said she’s “hopeful” the lawsuit will help delay or stop the project, but she’s not optimistic because of the “entrenched deals” driving it forward – deals that perpetuate historical disregard for Black communities.
She said the NAACP is not against Wegmans, but rather this particularly property, which she said still contains unmarked graves of Brown Grove descendants, though she can’t verify where or how many because the NAACP and residents have been denied permission to access the property. She said there’s also potential evidence of the foundation of a one-room schoolhouse. She said Wegmans could’ve chosen other sites within Hanover that didn’t disturb protected wetlands or cause harm to historic communities.
“Environmental justice is relatively new to Virginia,” she said, and “people are understanding and committees are being formed but that hasn’t stopped the water control board from issuing this permit.”
“This is not against Wegmans,” she continued. “There are other places in Hanover that they could build and leave this land alone [but] it’s just evident that they are discounting this community.”
“We’re just tired of having our communities destroyed…for the sake of business.”
Protect Hanover member Rod Morgan called the current legal battle “a true David and Goliath situation.””DEQ got a lot of things very wrong,” Morgan said, including accepting erroneous Wegmans wetland information, not properly vetting alternative site analysis and a failure to show efforts with regards to its duty to further environmental justice.
The suit alleges, among other things, that Wegmans “consistently submitted erroneous information to VDEQ with respect to the wetlands’ delineation,” citing that initially the company said it would destroy roughly 6 acres of land, which ended up being roughly 15 acres, though those numbers may also be “understated.”
The suit also alleges that the administrative record on which the permit decision was made “fails to consider any Environmental Justice issues in the [least environmentally damaging practicable alternative] analysis, although such is required as a matter of State and VDEQ statutory policy,” particularly as those issues pertain to “environmental communities and fenceline communities” like Brown Grove.
The suit notes that Wegmans’ alternative site analysis was “inadequate and was conducted with a results-oriented approach to justify” that site above all others, and contains “the largest permanent destruction of wetlands for this non-water dependent project of all alternatives considered.”
Morgan said he and others hope their efforts “shine a light” on VDEQ’s errors so the agency can fix them now and for future cases.
With regards to Biblical battles between giants and men, Morgan said, “generally, Goliath wins, but that doesn’t mean David doesn’t have a shot.”
Calls to Paylor, VDEQ director, were not returned. DEQ Spokeswoman Ann Regn said by email that Paylor “is not able to comment on an ongoing case.”
Richmond lawyer Brian Buniva filed the suit on behalf of the NAACP and Protect Hanover. He said Wegmans’ basic problem is that “they couldn’t have picked a worse site.”
He described Wegmans intentions to build at Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads as “unjustifiable.” He said VDEQ and the water control board committed “numerous errors of law” and that those agencies’ analysis methods were little more than “a mere check the box review.”
Buniva said it will continue to be an uphill battle against in fighting a government agency, though he said his clients are determined.
He added: “I believe these folks are good people who are getting trampled.”
Wegmans’ original plan was to break ground by spring 2020 on three buildings – one for dry goods, one for refrigerated perishable foods and yet another for frozen foods – and be operational by 2022. But intense public outcry and postponed votes by county leaders, partly due to COVID-19 in 2020, followed by delayed permitting by DEQ, have stalled the process.
Wegmans has two stores in the Richmond region and wants to build the giant distribution center to support the chain’s growth as it continues expanding into the South with more grocery stores. The family-owned retailer came to Virginia in 2004 and now has 12 stores statewide, plus plans for at least six stores – one of which has already opened – in North Carolina.
The Hanover facility would be its third distribution center.