After a year in the works, Port 460 rezoning tabled by council

Published 7:45 pm Friday, August 19, 2022

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For about a year, while project officials were working through the details about the 540-acre Port 460 Logistics Park project, residents and even City Council members were largely unaware of it.

Matan Companies, the project developers, first reached out to Jesse Williams last summer about buying the massive property that has been in his family for several generations, and it looked at multiple properties in an effort to develop a logistics park.

It also reached out to planning and design engineering consultants Kimley-Horn to help it gauge the project, reviewing the zoning and existing and surrounding uses to determine compatibility with the city’s zoning, development ordinances and the comprehensive plan. It also performed studies on the effect on traffic and public facilities, and it also engaged with a local attorney in navigating its way through the approval process.

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“These are not data points that you can pull off of a Google search,” said that local attorney, Fred Taylor, who said he was surprised by Matan Companies’ overtures to him given what he said was his reputation as an anti-growth attorney. “Rather, these studies take months to prepare and finalize while simultaneously involving a variety of approving agencies, not just the city of Suffolk, but others at the state and federal levels.”

Those things began before Matan Companies and their representatives began engaging with city officials last September, according to Taylor, and had several meetings before it formally submitted its rezoning application two months later. From there the submission went to the Land Use Review Committee, where various city departments began to analyze the proposal, and there were “no less than three land use committee reviews” and additional meetings with various department staff.

By spring, all of the city departments had approved the submission, Taylor said, except for traffic engineering, in which it took more than 12 meetings with that department before getting its approval.

During this time, Taylor said Matan was reaching out to adjoining property owners and business leaders, though one such business owner, Dr. Glenn Chase of Academy Animal Care, whose business is across U.S. 460 from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, said no one from the company or the city reached out to him directly.

A public meeting in June was the public’s first knowledge that the property off of U.S. Routes 460 and 58, and Pitchkettle, Kings Fork and Murphys Mill roads, was proposed to be rezoned from general commercial and agricultural to heavy industrial zoning to allow for 4.7 million square feet of warehouses, 10 in all, to be built along with some commercial retail to be built on the property fronting U.S. 460.

Residents soon began galvanizing and pressing for more details on the project, and organized to oppose what some members of council have said is the largest one they’ve seen in their time of public service.

Matan submitted a joint permit application for federal and state environmental permits June 27, and the Army Corps of Engineers published a public notice Aug. 5 announcing its Norfolk District commander had received it. The application has also been filed with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Local Wetlands Boards.

From there, the city’s planning office recommended approval of the rezoning for the project, and the Planning Commission, in a split vote, also recommended such approval.

Project organizers held another meeting with the public earlier this month, and then council got its time in the spotlight on the project, holding a public hearing Wednesday that filled its chamber and a portion of the area outside the room with opponents, who have declared that opposition vocally, through volumes of emails, the stickers on their shirts, the signs in their yards, a petition and a Facebook page.

After a nearly 30-minute introduction from the city’s interim director of planning and community development Kevin Wyne and public works director Robert Lewis, and a doubling of public hearing time from 30 to 60 minutes — opponents argued that wasn’t nearly long enough — and after council discussion, it voted 7-1 to table the rezoning request for 30 days. Councilman Tim Johnson, who opposes the rezoning and the project itself, voted no.

Taylor said contrary to public opinion, the process has been transparent.

“There have been a lot of comments made that this project has been railroaded through, or it has lacked transparency, or lacked community involvement,” Taylor said. “I’m particularly sensitive to these accusations because this type of project that comes before you does not occur in a vacuum. It is not created with handshakes and backroom deals, and I know this because I’ve been a part of this project for nearly a year.”

Wyne noted that 130 acres of the property is already zoned for general commercial use, and noted that the warehouses for the proposed industrial park “were conceptualized but not proffered,” and would be built in phases.

He said Matan Companies submitted a revised proffer statement Aug. 16 to exclude certain high-intensity uses of the property that would otherwise be permitted in heavy industrial zoning, and make traffic improvements outlined in the approved traffic impact assessment. It has also proffered $4.5 million toward 30% engineering plans for U.S. 460 between the U.S. 58 Bypass and Providence Road and Lake Prince Drive, including $400,000 for survey work along the corridor, and $2.1 million for interchange improvements at the U.S. Routes 460 and 58 Bypass. It has also proffered an enhanced buffer on property adjoining NSA and along the Murphys Mill Road right-of-way, including a 75-foot wide buffer, six-foot high landscape screening, fencing and berming along the school boundary and along the front of Murphys Mill Road.

Lewis said the proposed project rezoning has to adhere to applicable city standards, rules, guidelines and state and federal code.

He said there would be no public access from the site onto Murphys Mill Road, and there would be eventual improvements needed to Pitchkettle Road, the interchange at U.S. Routes 460 and 58 — first with a temporary traffic signal and eventually with a diverging diamond interchange — and at Pitchkettle and Kings Fork roads, and Kings Fork Road at U.S. 460. There would also be truck prohibition signage to funnel the traffic back to U.S. 460.

“This project is actually mitigating their traffic through the improvements they’re doing as part of the different phases in this,” Lewis said.

Lewis said it was important to note Matan’s financial contributions to the road improvements. He acknowledged that, by itself, it would not be near enough to pay for everything, but the early work will allow the city to be able to compete for money on the state and federal level and make road improvements ahead of when they’re needed. He said traffic is coming, mostly outside of the city’s control, making this project an opportunity to get ahead of it.

“In today’s world, in order to go out and find funding, and again, the city of Suffolk cannot afford to build a road like this. … We need the support of the state and federal government to help us with this,” Lewis said. “When you have money on a project, when you’ve done the preliminary engineering, when you’ve shown it’s viable, it’s much easier to track funds, such as what we’ve done on some other recent projects that we’ve briefed you on.”

Project officials cited the economic benefits of jobs and money to the city’s economy, something opponents disputed.

Barbara Nelson, vice president of development and transportation policy at the Port of Virginia, said the port and its officials support the project. She said the port has seen record growth over the past two years, creating pressures and opportunities for the port, and it needs high-quality industrial properties.

Williams, 72, the property owner, said his farm has been engulfed by residential development and his family is not going to come back to it. However, he plans to continue farming elsewhere — “we’re merely going to swap it for farmland somewhere else.”

He said at his age, he wants to get it done while he is still able, to farm with his children and grandchildren “and go back to a rural community.”

Williams said he asked a neighbor of his if he was interested in buying the property, but was told he would not be able to come close to fair market value for it. He said the largest homebuilders in the country would love to fill it with homes, and Dominion Energy, a few years ago, was interested in the site as a solar facility, but he said even without traffic or noise, there would be few jobs or revenue.

He agreed about the need for improvements to U.S. 460 — “the truck traffic is coming, the truck traffic is getting worse, the volume at the port has doubled in the last 20 years.”

But it didn’t sway opponents, and the proposal raised questions from members of council, including from Roger Fawcett, who made the motion to table the rezoning, and from Mayor Mike Duman, both saying they had not made a decision on whether to support the rezoning. Fawcett said the city “will get hammered” with trucks whether it likes it or not. Duman said the city, with the project, would have leverage in getting needed upgrades to U.S. 460, but said he needs to know more about where the money will come from.

“There are good things on both sides of this issue,” Fawcett said.

Johnson, who said he was “thunderstruck” when he first learned of the proposal, made an impassioned plea to the other members of council to vote against the proposed rezoning and said it was the toughest thing he’s been a part of during his elected service.

“The process is wrong,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to talk to the public more.”

Now it will have an additional 30 days to do just that.