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UPDATE Aug. 9, 2023, 8:26 a.m.

Chesapeake’s City Council delayed a vote on a ballot referendum to dedicate city funds to preserving agricultural lands.

Councilwoman Amanda Newins said there are still too many questions about where the funding would come from.

“The worst thing we could do as a council is lead our citizens blindly without having all the information available to them.” 

City Manager Christopher Price says he’ll present a report to council this fall on land use and agricultural preservation options.

Pushing off the vote means council will miss a deadline to get the referendum on this year’s ballot. 

If the council does eventually authorize the referendum, voters wouldn’t get to weigh in until November 2024.

Original coverage from Aug. 7, 2023:

Chesapeake’s City Council will consider whether to ask citizens if they want to put more city money toward buying agricultural land and open space to stave off development.

Councilwoman Debbie Ritter is expected to introduce the measure to the council at Tuesday night’s meeting.

If approved, it would put an advisory referendum on the ballot in November. 

The non-binding referendum would ask voters if they want to set aside half a penny of the city’s real estate tax - about $1.7 million dollars - annually to buy and preserve agricultural land and open space.

Ritter said Monday that there’s been a consistent drumbeat in the city from residents frustrated at problems they believe are fueled by increased development — like traffic.

“It's taking forever to get anywhere, I hear that a lot, and people tie that to what they consider to be too much development,” Ritter said. “Some of the schools remain terribly overcrowded. There are a lot of pressures to provide additional services … I think people believe sometimes that additional development holds back being able to fund so many things that they would like to see.”

Ritter emphasized that this is not a question about new taxes. It’s about earmarking existing tax revenue for preservation efforts beyond what the city already does.

The move was partly prompted by a push from residents against increasing development of the city’s rural areas — in particular, the recent backlash against a warehouse megasite planned for 1,420 acres of farmland in the southern part of the city.

Ritter noted that the referendum would not impact the megasite development, known as the Coastal Virginia Commerce Park.

“We do need to focus on what we can do reasonably. To make sure the agricultural industry survives,” Ritter said.

Chesapeake already has a program that purchases development rights on agricultural land to preserve it for farm use. But Ritter says funding is that program is already a challenge and the proposed earmarked money would go a step further and acquire the land outright.

Meanwhile, a citizen-led petition seeking a different referendum is nearing its deadline to gather thousands of signatures.

The petition from the Rural Chesapeake Preservation Committee would ask voters if the city should incorporate protections for farms, existing residential developments and the rural character of Southern Chesapeake. That effort is a direct response to the megasite project, and a push back against larger development trends in the city.

Petitioners would need 32,000 valid signatures by Friday to get their question on the ballot.