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Planning to integrate past, present, future

When some people think of Suffolk, they may envision farmland, cotton fields and peanut fields interspersed among the villages. Others picture the historical downtown with its old houses and factories. Still others envision Joint Forces Command and the growth in northern Suffolk.

Each facet of Suffolk contributes to the larger picture of a city rich with history and promise for the future.

Not many people may think about it, but the planning and preservation of Suffolk must be carefully laid out and executed to ensure the success and health of the city.

“We plan for the future to protect what is important in Suffolk,” said Scott Mills, director of planning and development. “For some people that’s farmland, history or growth. If you don’t plan today, those things might be irreplaceable.”

The city has a 256-page document called the 2026 Comprehensive Plan, which details growth plans for Suffolk.

“Comprehensive planning is central to the city’s past success and to its future prosperity,” it states.

[T]he city is changing, growing and adapting to new opportunities. Areas of rural landscape are being transformed into high technology centers. The historic downtown core is vibrant once again.”

A comprehensive planning document was first adopted in 1989 as a 20-year vision of how the city should grow.

“We’ve had plans for over 20 years,” Mills said. “They set a vision and established regulations and zones telling people where they can build and how they can build. We now rely on plans to formulate the city.”

When determining what can be built where, factors taken to account begin with environmental features, such as farmlands and swamps.

“First you have to decide how you want to grow and where you want to grow,” Mills said. “We take into account rural preservation and how the community wants to protect natural environmental features like the Great Dismal Swamp.”

Located in Suffolk are seven water reservoirs, which provide Suffolk and other neighboring communities with potable water. The reservoirs have played a role in the growth of the city.

“They’ve really shaped our growth boundaries,” Mills said. “They’re one of the most beneficial things that helps Suffolk in long-term growth, because we have the water supply here.”

“It’s important to protect the integrity of those water sheds, so we can provide that resource,” said Patrick Roberts, Deputy City Manager.

While farmland, the reservoirs and other environmental features are being preserved, there are two areas the city is focusing on growing.

“Our two designated growth areas are the central core and north Suffolk,” Mills said.

To foster growth in downtown Suffolk, two years ago building restrictions were eased.

“Businesses go where there are rooftops,” Roberts said. “And, we’re trying to bring more businesses to the area.”

Of course, an important factor in planning — no matter where it is — is available utilities and services.

“If you allow development willy-nilly, it will cost you — and the taxpayers — a lot more,” Mills said. “Imagine schools, libraries, fire stations, traffic signals and fire hydrants — the cost of building the infrastructure to support a development can really be saved if it happens in a planned manner.”

Every five years the planning department convenes to review its 20-year comprehensive plan and take in to account changes and community input.

“There is a balance between changing the goals of the city and the objectives of the community,” Mill said. “You have to be mindful and have community input on the vision for the city to ensure you’re staying true. Residents are the stakeholders.”

Ultimately, planning for the future of Suffolk and preserving its history go hand in hand.

“We’re trying to grow smart, because Suffolk is a very diverse city,” Mills said. “We’re developing in compact growth areas that we can efficiently provide services for and preserve rural lands and villages. We want to preserve the history in downtown Suffolk and continue to foster the north’s rapid growth. Being able to plan and protect our diversity is so important.”