Va. Supreme Court will hear appeal in contentious Wegmans distribution center case

By: - May 31, 2022 12:03 am

Opponents of a water permit for a Wegmans distribution center in Hanover at an April 30 news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The Supreme Court of Virginia will hear an appeal of two lower court rulings that found that residents living near a massive planned Wegmans distribution center project in Hanover didn’t have standing to challenge local officials’ approval of the project. 

“The essence” of the Hanover Circuit rulings “is that literally no one can challenge the decision of the board at issue here,” argued five residents whose properties lie within 1,200 feet or across the street from the Wegmans site. They say the case will allow the high court to “determine once and for all” whether owners of property adjacent to projects with adverse impacts “have access to the courts to challenge” approvals granted by local governments.

On May 23, the Supreme Court of Virginia announced it would hear the appeal. No schedule has yet been set.

“We’re really hopeful that the Supreme Court is going to get this right and fix what Hanover County didn’t get right,” said Roderick Morgan, one of the residents involved in the suit. “It’s ridiculous that people have not had access to the courts because of this whole standing issue, and it’s people who are immediately adjacent to the property and really close by.”

Hanover County Director of Communications Kerri O’Brien said Hanover was “confident that the Supreme Court’s review of the steps taken by the board when it approved the zoning applications will show that the board’s consideration and approval of those applications are fully supported by the law.”

Wegmans did not provide a comment on the court’s decision to the Mercury. 

The Supreme Court’s decision to review the case is the latest twist in an ongoing fight by several overlapping groups of Hanover residents to block the construction of a 1.7 million square foot Wegmans distribution center roughly two miles from Interstate 95 and seven miles north of Richmond. 

Local and state officials have touted Wegman’s promise to create 700 jobs and invest $175 million in the Hanover facility as a major economic development win for the region. Former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration awarded the company $2.35 million in grants to secure the commitment. 

However, several local groups have opposed the project for a range of reasons including concerns about noise, truck traffic and the planned destruction of almost 15 acres of wetlands.

Particularly objectionable for some is the site’s placement adjacent to Brown Grove, a historically Black community founded by freedpeople after the Civil War and where many of their descendants remain. 

One lawsuit filed by the Hanover NAACP against Virginia and the State Water Control Board, which granted Wegmans a permit to disturb wetlands on the site, alleged that state officials had failed both to ensure the proposal was “the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” and to meaningfully involve the Brown Grove community in the permitting process. 

A request to halt construction work until the legal matter was settled was rejected by the Richmond Circuit Court. The Court of Appeals of Virginia later upheld that decision. 

A second lawsuit, filed by residents Roderick and Andrea Morgan, Sara Blose, Kathryn Woodcock and Timothy Miller against the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, contends Hanover officials had violated local ordinances and state laws in eight different ways.

Hanover Circuit Court in November 2020 and August 2021 dismissed all eight complaints, holding that the residents had “failed to plead facts sufficient to establish a particularized harm which is ‘different from that suffered by the public generally.’” 

In appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court of Virginia, the residents emphasized the “particularized harms” they say they face as a result of the Hanover Board of Supervisors’ May 6, 2020 vote to rezone the Wegmans site, grant the project a special exception and approve revised proffers governing the use of the property.

“The increased traffic, night sky light pollution from the taller parking light poles, increased noise from traffic and facility operations and a decrease in property values created a nuisance and were particularized injuries unique to the plaintiffs and not suffered generally by the public,” they wrote in the appeal. 

Those harms give them standing to legally challenge the board’s May 2020 decision, they said. 

Project opponents in both suits are being represented by attorney Brian Buniva.

This story has been updated to provide comments from Hanover County. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.