It didn’t have to be this way, Wegmans

March 28, 2023 12:04 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)

A massive regional distribution center for the Wegmans supermarket chain aspires to open soon in the midst of a Hanover County community of special Black historical significance.

Even though legal proceedings challenging the behemoth facility that will eventually encompass up to 1.7 million square feet are in the news, the facility is already largely built, to the considerable detriment of families that have lived there for generations.

The new Wegmans hub, by its own estimate, will generate 2,864 additional daily vehicle trips along a stretch of Hanover’s Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads.

From 2019 through last year, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles recorded 217 crashes on Sliding Hill and Ashcake, about one-fourth of which resulted in injuries to 76 individuals. Property damage resulted from the other 166 crashes.

There are other consequences, too.

Rainfall, once absorbed or at least slowed by soil and ground cover, will wash off the distribution center roofing over the equivalent of 19 football fields and its surrounding tarmac. The runoff will inundate ditches, creeks and streams.

Security and parking lot lighting will illuminate the Wegmans property (and, in part, properties nearby) from dusk to dawn. Forklifts that load and unload cargo trailers at scores of sally ports will emit their piercing beeps when they’re backing up as safety protocols dictate.

It didn’t have to be this way.

This project was a power play from the outset with big money all in to win.

Wegmans is one of the nation’s largest privately held businesses. It has 50,000 employees and operates 103 upscale stores across seven states. Annual sales in 2019 totaled $9.7 billion. Former Gov. Ralph Northam added $2.35 million in taxpayer dollars plus a goodie bag of tax breaks to sweeten Hanover’s dowry to Wegmans.

The Hanover property was not initially zoned for so huge an enterprise, but the county’s Board of Supervisors helpfully approved an exception, notwithstanding concerns about neighbors’ lost tranquility and potential home devaluation. Particularly affected was Hanover’s Brown Grove community, founded after the Civil War by formerly enslaved people. Some of their descendants still live there.

When several unhappy homeowners sued in 2020 challenging supervisors’ project approval, Hanover’s Circuit Court ruled that the plaintiffs “lacked standing” for the legal challenge because they hadn’t specified a “particularized harm” beyond what the public generally might suffer. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court last month overturned that decision and returned the case to the local court for adjudication of the homeowners’ claims.

Now, a platoon of lawyers has asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its February ruling, arguing that it could invite land-use litigation and disturb “decades of settled zoning decisions.” A who’s who of crony capitalism sides with Wegmans, including various chambers of commerce, the Virginia Economic Developers Association, the Virginia Association of Realtors, the Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League.

Big money is accustomed to having its way and never gladly surrenders even its slightest advantage. So it is naturally anxious at the prospect of affording due process to ordinary folk who can demonstrate that their rights have been bulldozed by the combined might of the well-connected/well-heeled and their governmental allies.

Six years ago, Tim Miller and his wife, Kathy Woodcock, moved from a Western Henrico County subdivision to a spacious, new farmhouse on 85 gently rolling acres of fields and woodlands in Hanover “with a mind to enjoy the peace and quiet, enjoy the solitude — get back to nature.”

One day last week, Miller grimaced at the constant groan of heavy machinery and the incessant beeps of vehicles in reverse on the Wegmans work site. Several times in less than half an hour, southwesterly gusts lifted up towering plumes of grayish dust from the construction site’s bare dirt, blew it across narrow Ashcake Road and toward their house 700 feet away. He hopes, with modest conviction, that years from now a buffer of pine and cedar saplings he has planted on his side of Ashcake will provide a barrier, at least obscuring the building if not damping its noise.

“In my house, sometimes I can literally feel those machines,” said Miller, a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with his wife. “When the wind’s blowing out of the south, I have been able to hear conversations among the workers over there.”

Another neighbor, Chris French, acknowledges the need for economic development. A smaller, less intrusive project would have found broad community acceptance, he said.

“Nobody’s against development in its proper context,” French said. “What’s happened here is the county turned a blind eye to us and all they had was dollar signs in their eyes.”

For a locality hidebound by history, Hanover has been far less observant of Black history. Just as communities of color in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Richmond’s Jackson Ward and elsewhere were bisected and left to wither when interstate highways were routed through them, Hanover’s Brown Grove has also been carved up and sacrificed at the altar of economic development, said Pat Jordan, president of the Hanover County NAACP.

“They slowly destroy the fabric of a community,” Jordan said, “and in Hanover, there are so many examples of that.”

Hanover’s Brown Grove has been carved up and sacrificed at the altar of economic development.

– Pat Hunter Jordan, Hanover NAACP

Wegmans wasn’t without other, perhaps more workable options.

When the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, scouted Virginia for a distribution hub a few years back, it settled on a site off U.S. 15 just several hundred yards from its interchange with Interstate 64 in rural Fluvanna County. In Hanover, traffic for the Wegmans facility will travel a couple of miles or more through several intersections in business and residential areas.

Cynicism spreads at pandemic rates among Americans struggling to pay their bills, sometimes working multiple gigs. Many believe the system is rigged against them, something demagogic politicians exploit, often augmented by conspiratorial fallacies.

When enormously wealthy businesses throw their weight around, bigfoot established communities and then, alongside the very officeholders those residents elected, enlist teams of high-priced attorneys to impose their will, it validates those cynical beliefs.

Walk into any Wegmans and displayed high on a prominent wall you will see a photo of the grocery chain’s late leader, Robert B. Wegman, emblazoned with a quote from him: “Never think about yourself; always help others.”

Excuse folks in places like Brown Grove if they don’t buy it.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]