Planners deny White Marsh development

Published 10:37 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A 125-acre development southeast of downtown failed to win the approval of the Suffolk Planning Commission on Tuesday.

After hearing from eight people in opposition to the development, commissioners wrestled with traffic concerns and ultimately voted against it unanimously.

“I think this is going to create a tremendous traffic problem for the city,” Commissioner Mills Staylor said. “I’m very concerned. East Washington Street is a disaster. It’s been an issue for years.”

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The development by Franciscus Homes and South Suffolk Properties LLC is proposed on land off White Marsh Road. It is in the southeastern corner of the city’s central growth area — everything to the south and east is agricultural.

“If you start doing this down here, it’s no better than Chesapeake,” opponent David Franklin said during the public hearing.

The 125-acre parcel was part of a previously proposed project, the Four Farms development, that was shot down by City Council in 2011. The Four Farms project would have been much larger — about 2,000 single- and multi-family housing units on 462 acres, as well as 164,000 square feet of commercial space and a 19-acre site for an elementary school.

The currently proposed development includes 319 single-family, detached homes, although Melissa Venable of Land Planning Solutions said only 185 of those are likely to be developed.

Most of those in opposition spoke about traffic. The East Suffolk Gardens Civic League and Lake Kennedy Civic League said they are concerned that the new residents would cut through their neighborhoods.

“Unless the traffic on White Marsh Road is forced in some way to proceed on White Marsh Road, the community will not benefit from that at all,” said William Goodman, president of the East Suffolk Gardens Civic League and a former planning commissioner. “We have problems with traffic already.”

The width of White Marsh Road and traffic on East Washington Street, as well as intersections along the way, also were concerns of residents. The developers have offered to improve two nearby intersections and improve the road in front of the development, as well as money to build a new middle school and make sewer improvements.

Harvey Whitney said he is concerned the new proposal is simply another way of attacking the larger Four Farms project.

“It seems like we’re breaking it up and trying to use a Trojan horse to come in the back door,” he said.

Other nearby residents said it is not the right place for growth.

“If we wanted to live in a subdivision, we would have purchased a property in a subdivision,” Laurie Locklear said of herself and her husband. “Please do not allow the rezoning of this farm to be the start of another Harbour View.”

Commissioner Johnnie Edwards III pointed out that the city’s planning documents encourage walkable communities.

“How does this project in this area of the city promote a walkable community?” he asked.
“I’m not seeing the vision.”

In other business at the meeting, the commissioners approved a 44-home development at the southeast corner of the intersection of Bennetts Pasture Road and Driver Lane.

City staff had recommended denial of the project, but attorney Whitney Saunders successfully convinced most of the commissioners otherwise.

Saunders said the overall character of the area is residential, and it has become more so over the years. He also said a business on the parcel, for which it is currently zoned, would take away from the businesses in nearby Driver.

“It will draw the lifeblood out of what is trying to happen” in Driver, Saunders said, noting business owners there are starting to see a revival in business.

He also said the parcel was for sale for years as a business.

“I can vouch that piece of property had a for-sale sign for years and years, and I wondered why it didn’t sell,” Commissioner Ronnie Rountree said.

“There’s nothing but residential everywhere around the project,” Staylor agreed.

The motion passed 7-1, with Edwards opposed.

Both projects will be heard by City Council on Dec. 16.