City land buy for road project denied

Published 9:35 pm Thursday, February 6, 2020

A proposed road that would have divided two churches united them in opposition to a city plan to purchase land to make improvements to Nansemond Parkway.

With a large contingent of members from both St. Mary’s Church of God in Christ and Tabernacle Baptist Outreach Center at City Hall Wednesday, City Council voted unanimously against approving the city purchase of land for the $11.1 million project. Much of the crowd in attendance applauded following the vote.

“In my 39 years on this council, I have never voted against a church … and tonight, I will not do that,” said Councilman Curtis Milteer. “I’m in full support (of) the project being relocated to another area which will not affect the churches.”

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The road improvement plan called for, among other things, rerouting Bennetts Pasture Road’s intersection with Nansemond Parkway in between the two churches to align with Sportsman Boulevard. Church leaders and members of both congregations brought up safety concerns about the road being too close to their respective buildings and the disruption it would cause to services and other activities during a public hearing last month and at a public information meeting last August.

The project as a whole is designed to improve the safety and route reliability of Nansemond Parkway while easing its congestion in the stretch from Nansemond River High School past Sportsman Boulevard, according to Public Works Director L.J. Hansen, who addressed council Wednesday.

It would also eliminate the current traffic signal at the high school and move it to Sleepy Hole Road, and at the same time, provide access to the high school and the adjacent neighborhoods.

“This corridor is incredibly important to the transportation network for the city of Suffolk,” Hansen said.

With intersections at Sleepy Hole Road, Bennetts Pasture Road and at Nansemond River High School, Hansen said it can get congested quickly, as they are too close together. An issue at one intersection causes backups at the other two and beyond. Hansen noted that there have been 73 reported accidents along that stretch of Nansemond Parkway between 2015 and 2019.

The genesis of the project dates back to fiscal years 2013-2014, when the city applied for and later received funding to study options for the project, Hansen said, and there was some preliminary engineering work. Council got its first look at potential options in July 2018, he said.

Hansen said ideal spacing between intersections on Nansemond Parkway is 2,500 feet, and 1,320 feet along Sleepy Hole and Bennetts Pasture roads. Currently, there is about 1,340 feet of distance from Sandy Lake Drive, off of Sleepy Hole Road, to Nansemond Parkway. There is about 700 feet from Sleepy Hole Road to the entrance at Nansemond River High School and 600 feet from Sleepy Hole to Bennetts Pasture roads. From Sleepy Hole Road to Sportsman Boulevard, the distance is about 2,750 feet.

Other options to reroute Bennetts Pasture Road, Hansen said, would have impacted wetlands and not been permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers. It would have also been too costly, he said.

“It’s not about the money,” said Councilman Lue Ward in opposing the land purchase. “It’s about the people and the congregations of the two churches.”

Hansen sought also to address concerns about traffic on Bennetts Pasture Road, saying it peaks during the mornings when students arrive and depart school. Traffic is at its lowest on the weekends, in particular Sundays, he said.

Hansen noted that as part of the proposed design for the project, 27 properties would be impacted in some way and total 3.59 acres — 1.4 acres of that wetlands and 0.6 acres a permanent easement.

For 17 properties, the city would be asking for right-of-way and easements, and another nine in which only easements would be needed. One belongs to the city.

Hansen said during his presentation that if the project was not authorized, his staff would work with the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers and a consultant to determine if another feasible option exists. He said that if the project was canceled, the city would have to reimburse $325,736 in revenue share funds to VDOT, also noting that $659,235 has been spent to date on preparation work for the proposed project.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett asked those supporting the two churches to stand before making a motion to deny the authorization of the land purchase for the project.

Councilman Mike Duman said he appreciated the city staff’s work but agreed with a delay in deciding on a proposal for improvements to Nansemond Parkway — for now.

“There may be a time where there is no alternative if we’re talking about the safety of our citizens,” Duman said.

Councilman Roger Fawcett and Mayor Linda Johnson both said that while they understand the need for road improvements, they want to see a different plan.

“I cannot sit here tonight and look at these two churches that have been in our city for over 100 years,” Johnson said, “regardless of what the costs may be — and I hope we can mitigate that — I hope we can find another way.”