Council hears opposition to road project

Published 10:22 pm Thursday, January 16, 2020

While the city is looking to acquire property to make improvements to Nansemond Parkway, residents and church officials continue to express concern about the impact of the project in that area and have asked for alternatives.

During a public hearing on the issue Wednesday, Suffolk City Council heard from six residents, including the pastors of two churches whose property would be split by part of the project. That split would reroute Bennetts Pasture Road to realign with Sportsman Boulevard.

After the hearing, and with some members of council having their own questions, they voted to table the issue until their Feb. 5 meeting. The project would improve the road from Nansemond River High School to just past Sportsman Boulevard.

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The project would also eliminate the current traffic signal at the high school and move it to Sleepy Hole Road, while providing access to the high school and the neighborhoods along it. The scope of the work would run from the high school to about 900 feet east of the intersection of Nansemond Parkway and Sportsman Boulevard.

Public Works Director L.J. Hansen said the overall scope of the project has three main purposes — improve safety, ease congestion and improve route reliability. He said project officials considered five possible designs, but ruled out all but one due to heavy wetland impacts or not creating enough separation between intersections.

“We cannot overstate the importance of this route as it relates to I-664,” Hansen said. “As I-664 continues to see additional pressure on it, we continue to see additional pressures on this road.”

From 2015 to 2019 along the stretch of road that would undergo work, there have been 73 reported accidents: 47 of those rear-end collisions, 11 more in which a vehicle left the roadway and 15 accidents categorized as other, according to Hansen.

“It’s important to note that part of this reason for the safety is because there are no protected left turn lanes along this corridor, with the exception of turning into the high school,” Hansen said.

Traffic is also a problem for that stretch of road, especially near the start and the end of the school day.

The Rev. Dwight Nixon, for the past 33 years the senior pastor at St. Mary’s Church of God in Christ at 3637 Nansemond Parkway near the intersection with Sportsman Boulevard, said the church has been there for 65 years and has a strong connection in the community.

He asked for an alternate route that would be safer and not have an adverse impact on the church.

“It won’t only just impact our worship service,” Nixon said. “Children when they leave the sanctuary as they play outside, we have a great concern about traffic coming along there, and sometimes we have a problem with drunk drivers. We don’t want anything to happen to any of our members or our parish.”

Next door, Tabernacle Baptist Outreach Center is celebrating its 110th year, and Pastor Trevon Boone shared similar concerns. In 2014, its membership bought 3.5 acres of land adjacent to its building that the city now wants for part of its project.

He said that with events such as banquets, Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, Bible study and more, its side door would be close to the new roadway, which would bring about additional noise that would be disruptive to Sunday services. Boone expressed concern about possible long-term damage to the church’s foundation.

“We realize that we live in a growing city, and change is needed,” Boone said. “However, it is our desire as a congregation that you would hear our heart and reconsider the Nansemond Parkway expansion.”

Hansen, who noted there have been meetings with both churches, said aligning the proposed Bennetts Pasture Road with Sportsman Boulevard is logical for that area. The connection provides proper distance between intersections, improves the safety and traffic flow through the area and reduces the overall number of traffic intersections, he said.

A majority of council members, including Donald Goldberg, Mike Duman, Roger Fawcett, Lue Ward and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, had concerns about different aspects of the project.

Goldberg asked about the amount of room between churches, and the wetland property surrounding them, while Duman asked whether there were other viable options, and Fawcett and Ward wanted to know whether the churches would receive assistance or compensation for parking. Bennett said the project could inhibit possible expansion for Tabernacle’s church, especially with wetlands surrounding the property.

“Actually, what we’re doing if we pass this is eliminate the church from having any expansion at all in the future,” Bennett said. “We’re really killing the churches there as far as the expansion effort.”

Hansen has said the greatest impacts would be to land behind and between the churches, which will receive compensation for the land acquisition. He said there would still be space behind St. Mary’s to add parking, but for Tabernacle, because of wetlands there, “there is less space,” he said. Hansen said he was unable to answer questions about whether Tabernacle could expand.

“When we’re designing a road project, we do not do topographical surveys or wetlands delineations on properties that we will not acquire,” said City Manager Patrick Roberts.

If council approves the right-of-way acquisition, the city would then go to the Virginia Department of Transportation and seek funding for the project, estimated at about $11.1 million. He said the earliest the project would begin construction is winter 2021.