Four Farms opponents advise Suffolkians

Published 9:39 pm Monday, February 14, 2011

First came the signs. Then came the letters. Then, the neighbor-to-neighbor phone calls.

Those were the first steps in an uprising of Suffolk residents against a massive planned residential development in their rural area.

By the time City Council denied a rezoning request and comprehensive plan amendment more than four months later, the grassroots effort had organized into a group, hired a lawyer, knocked on hundreds of doors and gathered more than 600 signatures in opposition to the Four Farms plan.

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Members of the group say they don’t regret all the work they put in — and they’re even giving advice to a group of neighbors in another part of the city who are gearing up to fight their own battle.

“The signs came first,” said Terri Morgan, of Suffolk Citizens for Responsible Growth. She was recalling the moment the blue signs from the planning department advertising a public hearing appeared across from her rural White Marsh Road home.

The day after the signs appeared, residents who owned property immediately adjacent to the 462-acre swath of land received a letter in the mail about the project. Phone calls between neighbors who knew each other quickly turned up a vital fact — few people were aware of the massive development that would turn the farmland into homes, apartment buildings and convenience stores.

“I think we pretty quickly realized that nobody knew about it,” said Lory Lagoyda, who also is involved in Suffolk Citizens for Responsible Growth. “At the beginning, nobody knew anything about anything.”

The fledgling group went to the planning department to get more information, where they found “incredibly nice and helpful” staff, Morgan said. However, that’s also where they found the full scope of the project.

“When we saw the information, we realized that we needed to find a way to get the information out,” Lagoyda said.

Fearing the new development would add new amounts of traffic to already crippled roads, flood the housing market, decrease property values and ruin the rural character of the area, the neighbors sprang into action.

They hired a lawyer and began getting in touch with their neighbors in ways big and small, technological and old-fashioned. They knocked on doors and talked to residents or left brochures when there was no answer. They created a Facebook page and a website. They visited civic league meetings. They presented their case to local business owners at a Downtown Business Association meeting. They rented space at a nearby community center and publicized the meeting through local media. They staked out the polls in their borough on Election Day, talking to every voter they could catch in the parking lot.

“I guess networking is the biggest thing,” Morgan said. “One person leads to another leads to another.”

The group also approached other groups with an interest, including the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Sierra Club and the Suffolk airport commission.

Throughout the process, several holiday weekends and bad weather threatened to interrupt their neighborhood canvassing plans. The process was delayed in Planning Commission while the commission held a public work session on the issue.

At every public meeting on the issue, though, the City Council chamber was packed with opponents, largely due to the work of Suffolk Citizens for Responsible Growth.

“You have to pack the audience,” Morgan told John Mitchell and Janet Rock, two residents of the Westhaven Lakes subdivision. Morgan, Lagoyda and other members of the group that opposed Four Farms met with Mitchell and Rock recently to advise them on how to fight a development.

A different developer also hopes to build hundreds of homes near their neighborhood. Though the people in the Westhaven Lakes group already had put some of the same steps into action, they still took copious notes on the Four Farms group’s actions.

No matter the outcome of either project, Lagoyda said, community action is better than sitting back and doing nothing.

“No matter what happens, it’s worth it to be able to go out and meet so many people,” she said.