Column – City should replace Fawcett after meeting comments
Published 4:15 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023
First, I would like to thank the Suffolk News-Herald for the opportunity to express my opinion. I am a founding member of CARE4Suffolk, Citizens Against Rezoning Efforts for Suffolk, a group of concerned Suffolk residents who oppose irresponsible rezoning. We value the quality of life in Suffolk, and want to preserve it. We understand growth and change are essential, but we want to see the city grow and change responsibly by ensuring the infrastructure is in place, including schools, roads, and public utilities, before rezoning and development. We want to preserve wetlands and areas around our reservoirs, which serve as our drinking water and a precious resource for all of Hampton Roads. In addition, we value the heritage of our agricultural community and support keeping suburban sprawl from encroaching on farmland.
Ensuring our goals and values starts with having a voice in the formation of the Suffolk 2045 Comprehensive Plan. The Suffolk Unified Development Ordinance points to the Comprehensive Plan as a policy document. The title of this document may indicate it is for future use years out. However, upon adopting the plan, it will guide and dictate Planning Commission and City Council decisions on many initiatives, including responding to rezoning applications. The existing 2035 comp plan has impacts on current rezoning and development applications. Therefore, Suffolk citizens must have a voice in the formation and content of the plan.
In conjunction with the city, on Nov. 17, CARE4Suffolk hosted a public forum to discuss the Suffolk 2045 Comprehensive Plan, attended by many city representatives and concerned citizens. The public forum is an example of successful, positive interaction between city officials and citizens as ideas and concerns were exchanged. Following this positive engagement, the city is currently holding a series of winter Community Engagement Sessions to gather additional citizen concerns and ideas. I attended the meeting on Feb. 2 for the second of seven scheduled. Jennifer Moore of the Media and Community Relations department did an excellent job facilitating the engagement, which allowed the city to walk away with many ideas and a list of concerns shared by those in attendance.
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The second community engagement went well until the last five minutes, when Council Member Roger Fawcett, who represents the Sleepy Hole Borough and serves as the Chair of the 2045 Comprehensive Plan Steering Group, offered his closing remarks. Fawcett indicated that he did not want to discuss rezoning and told attendees that farmers have a right to sell their land. Several community members spoke out and agreed that farmers can sell their land, but the city does not have to rezone the land from agricultural to residential. Fawcett then said, “If you get the attitude that you are going to stop something, get a life!” setting off a blaze of citizen responses, as it did not sit well with most attendees.
I believe that after the passing of the Port 460 rezoning, citizens concerned with that project felt as if the city was not listening to their voices, leading to a mistrust of city officials and their individual interests in such projects. CARE4Suffolk members have worked tirelessly to build relationships with city officials and to change feelings of mistrust by taking a positive approach to resolving issues and playing the citizen part of effecting positive change. Fawcett’s statement was damaging to the trust that we have built, as he indicated that citizens do not have a voice.
In my opinion, at the least, Fawcett needs to step down or be removed and replaced from his position as the chair of the 2045 Comprehensive Plan Steering Group (appointed by Al Moor, the City Manager). This action would show that citizens “do” have a voice in the formulation of the 2045 Comp Plan and that not all city officials share in Fawcett’s opinion. Moor needs to put a person in that seat that can objectively hear our ideas and concerns and fold them into the final 2045 Comp Plan when it comes to fruition. This is my call to action for Al Moor to effect this change and give the people their voice.
Dr. Sherri Johnston is the executive director of CARE4Suffolk (Citizens Against Rezoning Efforts for Suffolk).