Debate continues over Bennett’s Creek project rezoning

Published 6:23 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Debate on a previously approved rezoning application for Bennett’s Creek Quarter development Wednesday, Feb. 15 led City Council to again table action on the project.

The discussion was part of what pushed the meeting to nearly five hours as council heard additional comments on the application for Bennett’s Creek Quarter development after it was tabled at the Jan. 18 meeting.

The ordinance on the rezoning was reconsidered after an additional delay of improvements on Shoulder Hill Road and the Route 17 intersection.

Email newsletter signup

“As you recall, this is for the Bennett’s Creek Quarter project development that is currently under construction off of Shoulder’s Hill Road. It is in our northern growth area and part of our entering suburban use district,” Director of Planning and Community Development Kevin Wyne described during his presentation. “Originally this property was rezoned back in 2018. It was rezoned from RR – that was a Rural Residential Zoning District, to RU – Residential Urban Zoning District for the purpose of constructing up to 417 total units.” 

Napolitano Homes Senior Vice President John Napolitano spoke in favor of the project, while acknowledging those who came out in opposition.

“I know there are people here this evening who are opposed to the request in front of council tonight and there’s people who are in favor of it as well,” Napolitano said. “Bennett’s Creek Corridor is made up of a lot of families and this is the hour of dinner hour and homework with the kids… so it’s tough for them to get here, but I do know council has received numerous emails from residents out there requesting that you approve this this evening.”

Napolitano also acknowledged the CARE4Suffolk organization and agreed with their wishes for responsible growth within the city. 

Expressing his continued support for the project, Napolitano referred to the unfairness of Bennett’s Creek residents being stuck with added expenses.

“They too are tax paying citizens just like everybody here this evening who are either for or against this and I realize that this is going to add traffic to that intersection,” he said. “I get that, I understand that, But, the percent that is going to add over the next four years by doing this in increments is very, very minimal.”

In opposition of the ordinance, Suffolk resident Tom Rein pointed to the need for the city to follow its Unified Development Ordinance.

“I don’t want to be that guy, but somebody has to speak for the citizens of Suffolk,” Rein said. “I’m very conflicted regarding the recent actions by the Suffolk City Council. While I understand that economic development is an essential component of Suffolk’s positive growth, I feel that many recent decisions to approve developments fly in the face of Suffolk’s Unified Development Ordinance and should never have been approved.”

Rein said at the June 1, 2022 council meeting, the developer came to request 75 additional units. “Mr. Fawcett spoke in great detail why it should not be approved, and I agreed with everything he said that night,” he said “It was all factual, it wasn’t his opinion. And then before council voted on this, Mr. Duman stated his thoughts regarding any future request for additional units on this project and I quote, ‘And you can put this on record – from my standpoint, I can’t see doing any more units until that thing is done.’”

Rein said Duman was referring to the noted intersection work at Shoulder’s Hill and Bridge Road. Council still voted 7-1 to approve that with Roger Fawcett being the lone opposition vote.

“I ask you that you show the citizens of Suffolk, here tonight, you are listening to us and that our voices are being heard,” Rein said.

Suffolk Citizen Chris Dove signaled his approval of Rein’s remarks by saying, “Ditto.”

“The traffic issues have been well spoken of. What has not been spoken of, is the public facilities for schools,” Dove said. “Currently, the school that provides elementary services is Creekside for that facility. They do not meet the minimum level of standard of service. I am surprised that the Planning Department did not point that out to you.”

Additionally, he told Council that Nansemond River High School does not meet the minimum level of service required by both the UDO and the comprehensive plan.

Following three residents voicing their opposition, Napolitano returned to provide a rebuttal.

“This is a unique situation,” he said. “I hear what everybody’s saying and I get it, I do. I seriously do. When I made the commitment in ‘18, I never thought I’d be standing here tonight having this discussion with everybody. That road was ready to go, it was getting funded, they were getting ready to get right away. What delayed it, I don’t know, but people should not be penalized for that.”

But Napolitano said the city didn’t perform like they were supposed to in this particular situation. 

“I am not pointing fingers at anyone, but the residents that live there who are taxpayers also should not be penalized for this,” he emphasized. “We’re not just asking you to just lift it, we’re trying to do this incrementally to keep the community vibrant, because a dead community in the city doesn’t help the city at all and these are taxpayers.”

Along with legal discussions with City Attorney William E. Hutchings Jr. and discussions of the ordinance, Council Member Shelley Butler-Barlow reiterated that the number of units were not being increased.

“Point of clarity, we are not increasing the number of units. The number of units has been set since 2018, I believe?” Butler-Barlow said. “I just wanted to make that point out loud so that we all understand that.”

Council Member Roger Fawcett spoke of his discomfort with the project due to traffic safety.

“I’m going to lean toward whatever my constituents ask me to do at this point, and this is no reflection on the residents or you whatsoever,” Fawcett said. “This is just a conglomerate of a problem. Until we work some of the kinks out, I am not comfortable. I am just not.” 

Fawcett said his heart breaks that this has come up like it has. 

“I just won’t support it from the fact that I can’t bear the thought that someone’s going to get killed out there on that Shoulder’s Hill Road,” he said. 

Mayor Michael Duman said he doesn’t think there was anything wrong in the process, saying he believes Napolitano and city staff all acted in good faith. 

“But once again, I have an issue supporting this because we’re talking about safety, and safety is something that’s not negotiable,” Mayor Michael Duman said. “And because… nobody can really give me a definitive answer that we’ll have this thing done in 18 months. Could be 24, could be 36, who knows. It just depends.”

 

Duman also spoke on the option of revisiting the ordinance once they have definitive answers. “We know without a doubt that this will be complete by this time. I mean it’s already funded, everything is in place, we just have to go through the process,” Duman said.

Fawcett motioned to table the ordinance to the June 7 meeting, which was approved 6-1 with Councilman John Rector voting in opposition. 

Vice Mayor Lue Ward spoke on the continuous issue of the traffic not being rectified.

“This is not the first time that this community has complained about the traffic. “What I am saying is that we know development is still being done. Traffic is not going to decrease, it’s going to still increase,” Ward said. “I am concerned about people’s lives. I am with that all the way.”

Ward said he doesn’t know if they can change traffic flow.

“It’s not going away, so when this situation comes up, it’s like we want one or the other,” he said. “That’s not true.”

Finally, Council Member Fawcett spoke on tabling it as a compromise to save the project.

“The project is going to go forward eventually, this just buys us a little more time to see where the flow is going,” Fawcett said. “I just feel like this is a good compromise. I think that this council should strongly consider this and then we come back and get another crack at looking at where things are at, rather than kill just the man’s project out and that creates a different nightmare when we do that.”

Fawcett said his motion is the best council can do at this point other than saying no.

Councilman LeOtis Williams was absent from the meeting and was excused.