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A Hampton neighborhood fought for months against a project to turn a former school site into warehouses.

Residents in Chesapeake show up in force at council meetings to protest an industrial “mega-site” backed by city leaders.

Suffolk citizens are suing their city government over a project to build nearly five million square feet of warehouse space along Route 460.

All around Hampton Roads, proposals to build industrial warehouses are encountering strong opposition in surrounding communities. 

Opponents say they worry about stress on local infrastructure, impacts to the environment, noise disturbance and changes to their quality of life and sense of community. 

Developers and city officials, meanwhile, argue they’re filling a rising economic need to accommodate the Port of Virginia as it expands, and will create jobs along the way.

The recurring conflict aligns with changing ways we live, work and buy things, said Simon Stevenson, professor and chair of real estate and economic development at Old Dominion University.

“The issue isn’t going to go away,” he said. “And I think there are no easy solutions.”

On a chilly December afternoon, a group of Suffolk residents gathered along a section of Lake Cohoon-Meade, carrying heaps of paperwork and eager to talk about their opposition to a project called the Port 460 Logistics Center.

The spot’s a couple miles south of where developer Matan aims to build the center along Route 460. It would cover 510 acres just down the road from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.

Chris Dove, who lives nearby, said he joined the opposition effort because his neighbor asked him to start taking a look.

“And the more I looked into it, the more questions I had,” Dove said. 

He’s particularly concerned about potential impacts to local air and water quality.

Suffolk’s City Council approved the logistics center in September. Council members agreed to rezone the commercial and agricultural land there to industrial. 

Residents pushed back every step of the way – and haven’t stopped. 

A few people are suing city council members, claiming their decision was unreasonable, unlawful and “made without giving due consideration to factors” such as health and safety. 

Thomas Rein, who’s not involved with the lawsuit, said he isn’t against all industrial facilities. 

But he felt burned after an Amazon center went up near his home with no public input. He wanted to be part of the process with Port 460.

“They spent all this time planning this facility,” Rein said. “They spent zero time planning the impact on the neighborhoods and the citizens of this city.”

He’s been researching best practices on warehouses and points to a recent report out of New Jersey’s State Planning Commission, for example. 

It notes large-scale warehousing can have negative public health impacts in residential areas, particularly in low-income and minority communities.

“Put a large-scale project in the wrong place, and the negative impacts from a single intensive facility can have a significant regional impact,” the commission wrote.

Kelly Hengler has helped spearhead the public response to Port 460, including through a Facebook page called Say No to Warehouses. It started in Suffolk, but has since become a loose coalition throughout the region.

Hengler said the opposition didn’t start overnight. Some Suffolk residents have felt ignored for years, as concentrated development happened in the north part of the city and changes slowly happened to the landscape.

It’s a city people choose to live in because of its heritage and natural environment, away from urban bustle, she said.   

“We are a farm community – very proud of our commerce from ag farming and feeding people, very proud of our shellfishing, very proud of our tourism and our history here,” Hengler said. “And not a bit of that has been spoken of in any of the processes.”

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Photo by Katherine Hafner 

Suffolk residents Kelly Hengler, Thomas Rein, Andrea Parodi and Chris Dove gather near the site of the Port 460 project to discuss their concerns on Friday, December 16, 2022.

In Chesapeake, residents are fighting industrial projects in different corners of the city.

City leaders are hoping to build what they call a “mega-site” on 1,420 acres of former farmland in southern Chesapeake.

City Council recently voted to spend $14 million to buy the land for the Coastal Virginia Commerce Park, which would be built in the hopes of attracting a tenant.

“Once it is all done, this will be one of the most attractive mega-sites on the East Coast,” said Mayor Rick West.

It’s part of a massive tract of land along the North Carolina border owned by Frank T. Williams, who’s been in talks with the city and others for years to find a use for it.

To construct the commerce park, officials say they’ll need to build out infrastructure at the now-empty spot, including running new sewer and natural gas lines.

Jeff Staples runs a group called Save the Dismal, focused on preserving the Great Dismal Swamp. He’s especially concerned about environmental impacts.

“The places that we have left are few and far between, as far as natural areas and areas of limited density like this,” Staples said. “Places that have already been used (for industry) would be much more favorable than using new places and continuing to degrade the environment.”

The project also raises concerns about stress on already-strained infrastructure in the rural area, he said. Some people struggle to find transportation to even attend council meetings to voice their opposition.

Citizens are considering taking legal action over the mega-site, Staples said.

Another proposal recently approved by the Planning Commission would raise a 200,000-square-foot warehouse on South Military Highway, displacing people in a local mobile home park.

“A lot of economic-driven incentives are used and directed at the path of least resistance,” Staples said. “Which is oftentimes unsettling for people that make more modest incomes.”

The Port of Virginia is at the center of all discussions about the new warehouse projects.

Developers say they’re eager to provide a needed resource for the port. City officials say they want to support the local economy.

“When the private sector begins matching the investments we’re making in our facilities and capabilities, it supports our growth and sends a very clear signal to the industry that Virginia is open for business,” Virginia Port Authority CEO Stephen Edwards said in a statement when Suffolk’s Port 460 was approved.

Hampton economic development director Chuck Rigney previously told WHRO that market demand for warehouse space “is extremely tight” in the region. 

Vacancy is under 1% for industrial warehousing, he said, discussing his support for a new center that will go up on the former site of the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled

“It points to the need for having proximate locations for their needs,” Rigney said.

The Norfolk-based Port of Virginia says it’s the fastest-growing in the nation, though a few others have made similar claims.

Port spokesman Joe Harris said it’s been growing for years, but business ticked up even more during the pandemic. 

“What happened is the nation’s warehouses filled up, and there was nowhere to put stuff,” he said. “So yes, there’s a demand out there for space.”

Harris said the Norfolk port attracted new cargo owners during the crisis because it didn’t experience backups as some others did.

Port officials are now planning to invest $1 billion in their terminals over the next four years.

That draws investment to the area, Harris said, from companies that want to grow in parallel to the port. Those that set up nearby can pay less to haul their cargo. 

“The port needs infrastructure outside the fence,” Harris said. “We can have the best port in the world and your truck leaves the port and it gets stuck in traffic and has to drive 10 hours to get to a warehouse — those are not hallmarks of efficiency.”

It’s understandable that people are resistant to change in their neighborhoods, he said, but thinks it’s important to grow the local tax base and jobs.

Stevenson, the ODU real estate professor, said the warehouse conflict has to acknowledge infrastructure.

It’s a dominant issue in Hampton Roads generally – and he sees why, driving from Suffolk to the Norfolk campus each day after moving here about a year ago.

Sure, there’s clearly a demand for the warehouses. But he said what he’s seen missing from the conversation is clear messaging on how any negative consequences would be alleviated.

It’s a “real balancing act” – especially for city officials, Stevenson noted. Builders and communities both have good arguments.

“For the port to really maintain its position, never mind expand, it needs facilities around it,” he said. “At the same time, Hampton Roads has huge issues with infrastructure,” and intersecting water bodies that complicate building more.

It’s easy to dismiss locals as having a NIMBY — “not in my backyard” attitude, he added. But the facilities pose legitimate concerns about truck noise and pollution for a residential neighborhood.

It’s not a coincidence that the issue’s coming up more now. Retail business models – even items that go to physical stores – depend on distribution systems.

The recent planning report out of New Jersey noted the same.

“In recent years, industrial-scale warehousing for goods storage and distribution to businesses and retail customers has undergone rapid change with the growth of e-commerce and rising consumer expectations for same-day delivery services,” the report said. 

The decline of brick-and-mortar retail and rise of online retailers dramatically changes the way stuff needs to travel.

“The continuing evolution of logistics industries will have profound implications on the nexus between land use and the intermodal transportation network for years to come,” they wrote.