Growth is coming. What to do about it?

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Flash forward to the year 2031 and imagine an additional 25,000 people living in Suffolk.

That’s a sobering thought, if, like me, you spend a disproportionate amount of your life at the intersection of Constance and North Main wondering whether Suffolk can handle even one more vehicle.

Where will these 25,000 new people live? Where will they work? How will they get around? Where will the children go to school?


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Weighty questions all, with no simple answers.

Fortunately, Scott Mills, Suffolk’s director of planning and community development, and his staff are doing more than imagining and wondering. They are actively engaged in writing a plan to guide the city’s management of the residential and commercial growth that will occur over the next couple of decades.

For a vibrant city with Suffolk’s appeal, the choice is not whether to grow. Growth is inevitable. The choice is whether to grow responsibly.

Mills briefed Suffolk members of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning on the city’s update of a Comprehensive Plan that was last updated in 2006. Much has changed during the past seven years, requiring city officials to take a fresh look at Suffolk’s current and projected demographics and to adjust the plan as needed in order to accommodate the expected growth, ensure it is sustainable, and balance the growth with demand on infrastructure such as schools, roads and utilities.

The numbers alone are interesting. According to Mills:

4Suffolk’s population is projected to grow 30 percent, from 85,476 to 110,693 in 2031.

4The number of housing units will increase 31 percent, from 33,527 to 43,974.

4Designated “growth areas” can accommodate 11,623 new housing units, including 6,672 in North Suffolk and 4,951 in central, or historic, Suffolk.

The projected growth, if it materializes, would put Suffolk right at its current capacity of 45,150 housing units.

But what if growth exceeds demographers’ projections and more capacity is needed? What then?

Mills and his team are exploring a number of “growth scenarios,” from development of land currently zoned agricultural to increased density within use districts to expanding the boundaries of current “growth areas.”

Such tough decisions ultimately will be up to the Suffolk City Council, but give Mills and his team a lot of credit for compiling the data and framing up elected officials’ options well in advance.

The irony of Suffolk’s appeal is that the very qualities — open space, less traffic, slower pace — that lure people to Suffolk are the qualities that will be fastest fleeting if the city grows too quickly.

Other Hampton Roads communities that have grown faster than their infrastructure could accommodate over the past several decades could have benefited from the kind of careful planning that Suffolk is doing today.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is