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Chesapeake residents have filed a petition seeking to change the way city officials make land use decisions in historically rural areas.

The new coalition behind the effort is called the Rural Chesapeake Preservation Committee. It strongly opposes an industrial “mega-site” that city leaders are proposing on former farmland in the southern part of the city.

The residents have wide-ranging concerns, including impacts to infrastructure and the environment. They’re hoping to force a referendum on the topic onto the local ballot. 

They’ll have to collect signatures from about 32,000 people — a quarter of the city’s turnout in the last presidential election — over the next four months. 

“The City Council is doing things that citizens are not aware of,” said Renee Cobb, who filed the petition. “I think it’s incredibly important to pose this question so that citizens are informed of it (and) to give them a say-so in how the rest of the development should go in southern Chesapeake.”

Cobb has lived in southern Chesapeake for more than two decades on a three-acre lot. She said a big adjoining housing community was previously proposed next door, which first sparked her concern over development encroaching into the area.

She worries development in the area, including new sewer lines and more paved surfaces, will affect her ability to access well water and eventually drive her out of the area.

“We love our home,” Cobb said. “We have no intentions of moving – or didn’t, until all of this started.”

The City Council voted recently to buy about 1,420 acres of former farmland for more than $14 million for the proposed Coastal Virginia Commerce Park, which would be built in the hopes of attracting a tenant.

It’s part of a 4,000-acre 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 an alternate use for it.

The new petition, which has been certified by the Circuit Court, doesn’t mention the commerce park by name. 

Instead, it asks voters to approve putting the following referendum on the ballot this November: “Should the Chesapeake City Council review & revise the Comprehensive Land Use Plan to include comprehensive protections for the existing citizens, farms, and businesses, as well as making preservation of the environment and rural character that historic Southern Chesapeake provides a priority?”

Cobb said the goal is to get the city to update the planning document, which guides decisions on land use for years to come.

“Together as community stakeholders, we have observed and participated in the overwhelming citizenry’s resistance to this project,” the rural preservation committee said in a statement this week. “We have been shocked by the manner at which this project was pushed through.”

They also believe the decision to rezone land for the mega-site conflicts with a program the city has to preserve farmland, called the Open Space and Agricultural Preservation Program.

Just last week, Chesapeake received $175,000 in state funding for that program.

The city was among five localities — including Virginia Beach — to get money through the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund to boost programs that purchase development rights.

The fund was created 15 years ago to help reverse a trend of natural land loss, according to its website. 

Farmland covered about 13.5 million acres in Virginia in 1960 but was down to about 8.3 million a decade ago, the state says. Similar declines happened in Virginia forest land.

Chesapeake will use the new funding to buy development rights from willing landowners in exchange for a preservation easement on their property, city spokesperson Liz Vaughn said in an email.

The landowner receives fair market value for the development rights of the land, Vaughn said, but retains ownership. They can also have a home on the land and use it for agriculture or open space.

Cobb said the group is intent on doing the same – preserving farmland and open space.