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By day, Jennifer Olmstead goes a mile a minute, juggling the various duties that come with running a nonprofit in central Virginia Beach.

But when she heads south to her small horse farm in the evening, she leaves the bustle of the city behind.

“When I cross that Green Line out of the suburbs, through the last stoplight on my way home, I can physically feel the stress dissipate a little bit as the land opens up,” Olmstead said.

That line Olmstead refers to has divided Virginia Beach’s rural south from its rapidly developing north for more than 40 years.

Olmstead’s 10-acre horse farm is right along the edge of the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge. Behind her house, the property line meets Nawney Creek.

“That's where all the deer come through and the bobcats and even a wild pig once. But you never know quite what you're going to see,” she said.

A company has been eyeing a plot south of the sacred Green Line, about 7 miles north of Olmstead’s property. The unidentified company is seeking state support for an industrial development. Some city officials have indicated interest in signing off on the project, a medical manufacturing facility known only by the codename “Project Wayne.”

For Olmstead, Project Wayne represents a final stand.

“It's the last barrier. There really is no buffer at this point,” she said. “We're so close to losing that line, this is kind of it.”

The Green Line

In 1979, as Virginia Beach’s population exploded and new subdivisions seemed to be approved, the city drew a line in the sand.

It adopted a policy to halt large-scale development south of Princess Anne and Sandbridge roads. It meant city leaders wouldn’t approve new development to the south in an effort to preserve the city’s agricultural industry and heritage.

With the exception of a couple of subdivisions approved before the policy went into effect, the area south of the Green Line has remained largely undeveloped for decades. 

Still, the city’s sprawl creeps closer to the line.

Earlier this month, Virginia Beach announced Amazon will turn a couple hundred acres of farmland on Dam Neck Road near Naval Air Station Oceana into two major shipping facilities.

They’ll be about a mile and a half north of the Green Line.

Residents push back all over

Showdowns between rural residents worried about the changing character of their communities and the push for development is not uncommon in Hampton Roads.

Suffolk citizens sued unsuccessfully to stop a nearly 5 million square-foot warehouse complex on 540 acres of mostly agricultural land. Isle of Wight residents have pushed back against increasing residential development, even as regional growth pushes west

Neighboring Chesapeake is set up similarly to Virginia Beach: suburban sprawl in the northern half and a largely agricultural south. But development has been stretching further and further south for years. Tree farms and soy fields there have given way to subdivision after subdivision.

A group of citizens, the Rural Chesapeake Preservation Committee, filed a petition in an effort to stop what city leaders have called an “industrial megasite,” a monster 1,420 acre development on a former farm all the way down on the North Carolina state line. The City of Chesapeake recently spent $14 million to buy and develop the site in hopes of attracting a client.

That petition drive was ultimately unsuccessful, falling far short of the number of signatures they needed, but members of the committee have pledged to keep pushing the city to rein in development.

Renee Cobb, who helped spearhead the petition drive, lives near Grassfield High School in what was once Chesapeake’s hinterland. 

“Originally, when we first moved here, it was a super quiet community, virtually no traffic. We moved here before even Wal-Mart had opened. Once Wal-Mart opened, it was you know, it was nice to have shopping that close, but not be at our front door. But gradually over the years, it has become far more congested,” she said.

Now, a developer is planning over 1200 town homes in the fields behind her house.

Cobb’s complaints are common.

Opponents of large industrial and residential development in rural areas often cite the same list of concerns: changing character of a community they love, overbuilding areas that don’t have infrastructure to support it and the loss of workable farmland.

National group Farms Under Threat says America lost roughly 1.3 million acres of farmland to development in 2021. That’s consistent with findings from the 1990s that saw the loss of about 1.4 million in rural land annually.

Other communities around the country have tackled these kinds of thorny land-use questions and attempted to find a balance. In Oregon in the 1980s, cities like Salem adopted legislation creating “green belts,” reserving areas for farming uses that butt right up against urban development.

Virginia Beach’s Green Line is in the same vein as these laws and was developed around the same time. But with development pressure bearing on Virginia Beach, the Green Line now seems permeable in a way it hasn’t for generations.

Project Wayne Comes to Town

Last April, city staff introduced the council to Project Wayne. 

An unnamed medical manufacturing company - kept secret because city and state officials are still negotiating incentives to woo the company - wanted to build a factory that would make disposable medical materials, like face masks and surgical sheeting. 

The company said it would need as much as 250 acres to build the $175 million facility, so city officials directed them to one of the only places in the city with that much space: South of the Green Line.

The city owns farm land near Virginia Beach National Golf Course that it acquired through another city program meant to preserve agricultural land in the city. State development officials were working with the company to convince it to locate in Virginia. 

All the city needed to do was rezone the site as a one-off to clear the way.

But when the rezoning process came before the city council, residents’ outcry was immediate. 

Then-councilman Rocky Holcomb said he got more than 100 emails from concerned residents in the following weeks.

“They’re seeing this as a test run for how far we can move the Green Line down,” Holcomb said in May.

By then, officials said the company had revised its plan. It now would need only 150 acres. City staff said the other 100 acres could be set aside under a preservation easement that would not allow it to be developed, creating a buffer between the development and other open land.

But that wasn’t enough for the residents who came out in droves to the May public hearing to oppose the move.

“We’re afraid that small exceptions to zoning requirements, which we’re considering presently, will lead to big exceptions down the road,” said one.

“(Our community) opposes setting a precedent for trespassing the Green Line,” said another.

Barbara Henley - a longtime city councilwoman and farmer who represents southern Virginia Beach - pointed out that the proposed facility doesn’t align with the city’s own long-term plans for the site. At one point that lot was being considered for a refuse transfer station, meant for city staff to store debris during post-storm cleanup operations.

Henley noted that the intent of the Green Line is to keep this kind of large-scale development in the northern half of the city.

Then-Deputy City Manager Taylor Adams pushed back. 

“It was never a ‘no-growth’ line,” he argued. Adams was with the city nearly eight years when he left for a job in Nevada in June. Henley, on the other hand, was elected to the council in 1978 - the year before the Green Line policy was adopted.

But the Green Line is just that - a policy. Like many city policies, and particularly land use policies, exceptions can be made or policies can be waived altogether as the city council sees fit. In a case like this, rezoning a single parcel is well within the council’s purview and it’s made exceptions to the Green Line before, such as approving the city’s foundering Innovation Park.

But Project Wayne might be a tipping point, some Beach leaders said.

Mayor Bobby Dyer noted the city needs more affordable housing and a greater diversity of businesses and there isn’t much physical space left to create more.

“What we have here is a true dilemma, and this is going to be the beginning of a wave of the future. The reality is we are running out of land in the city for a lot of things,” Dyer said in May.

"What direction would you like us to pursue?"

Since May, further conversations about Project Wayne have happened behind closed doors. 

Chuck Rigney, who’s taken over as the economic development director following Adams’ departure, said the company was figuring out whether it still wanted to pursue the Virginia Bach site.

Rigney said it’s his job to present legitimate potential projects like Wayne to the council, even if it conflicts with current policy guidance. But, he said, if the city wants to keep keep entertaining offers like these, the city has to look to where there is land.

“We recognize that this is a long-standing policy with the establishment of the Green Line,” Rigney said. “But at the same time … if there is a bona fide prospect, we have kind of a responsibility to take it in and say ‘what direction would you like us to pursue?’”

In August, the City Council said hammering out questions about the city’s land use policies is the body’s top priority, but that hasn’t happened yet. There are existing plans to revisit the city’s comprehensive plan, the master document that guides the city’s land use policies.

But down among the fields and farms, Olmstead and others are still uneasy.

They worry if Project Wayne’s been beaten back, there will inevitably be another project at some point down the road.

“As soon as someone crosses or breaches that line, the line is gone,” Olmstead said. 

“The lines are erased and it is a matter of time before farms like mine are the exception or are surrounded by development and then are zoned out of their own space. That’s my biggest fear.”

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