Editorial – City should  go slow on Port 460 

Published 7:18 pm Friday, July 29, 2022

Opponents have raised enough valid questions about the proposed Port 460 warehousing and logistics that the Suffolk City Council would be wise to hit the pause button.
We’re not ready to call for rejection of the massive 4.7-million-square-foot project, but the city has a lot more due diligence — and listening — to do before we can give it our full-throated endorsement.

When City Councilman Tim Johnson, who’s not been known for hyperbole or overreaction during his distinguished tenure on the council, said in a public meeting that the push to rezone the proposed site off Route 460 has lacked transparency, it got our attention. Throw in a less-than-unanimous endorsement from the city’s Planning Commission and we’re convinced that the council would do the community a disservice by hastily approving the project next month.

The developer’s request is to rezone 540 acres bordering 460, Route 58, Pitchkettle Road, Murphy’s Mill Road and Kings Fork Road from general commercial and agricultural to heavy manufacturing.

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Plans call for 10 warehouse buildings and 24,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space fronting 460, also known as Pruden Boulevard. The site would be accessed by a main entrance at Pruden Boulevard and another on Pitchkettle Road.

Despite promises of 2,600 construction jobs, about 9,000 jobs once the project is built out, and up to $34.1 million in property tax revenue for the city, the project got the shakiest of endorsements from the Planning Commission after a recent two-hour public hearing. An initial motion to rezone the land died for lack of a second. Then a motion to deny the rezoning failed on a 5-3 vote. Finally, a second motion for approval passed 5-3.

Many in the overflow crowd were miffed that they weren’t given an opportunity to speak. The City Council’s first promise before voting on the rezoning should be to let every citizen speak who wants to be heard. While reasonable to impose a time limit on each speaker, there should be no limit on the number of speakers. If that means council members bringing their sleeping bags to their Aug. 17 meeting, where a public hearing is planned, so be it. Better yet, the council should hold the hearing at a special meeting on a different date in order to ensure that every voice is heard. This is what you sign up for when you run for public office: listening to the citizens, giving careful thought to controversial matters, then voting your conscience. That process should never be rushed.

It’s important to note that the current council and City Hall administration have a solid track record on economic development. News on Friday that Fitch, one of America’s “Big Three” credit rating agencies, gave the city a maximum AAA rating on its 2022 general obligation bonds, in large part because of steadily growing revenue, was a reminder that Suffolk has pressed a lot of the right buttons economically. We tip our hats to those responsible.

That said, concerned citizens have raised legitimate questions about whether the warehousing and logistics sector, which has driven explosive commercial growth on the Route 58 corridor, is nearing the point of a negative return on investment. Perpetually clogged roads — which many transplants moved to Suffolk to get away from — will surely backfire, chasing residents further west to Franklin and Southampton or north to Isle of Wight. Getting around by car in Suffolk is no longer a pleasant experience. Some days, it feels a lot like Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

Long before taking a vote on the project, the City Council should insist that staff make public and widely disseminate a detailed traffic study on the Port 460 project. If the one previously commissioned by the developer is deemed insufficient, a thorough study by an objective third-party consultant should be approved immediately.

In short, city officials haven’t earned the citizenry’s confidence on this project. They still have a chance to do so, but it won’t happen with a rushed vote on Aug. 17.