Future Focus: Suffolk’s 2045 Comprehensive Plan Update

Published 5:54 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

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Suffolk Planning and Community Development returned to provide their third 2045 Comprehensive Plan update. Joined by Suffolk Economic Development, City Council received proposed ideas from both departments regarding Economic Development and Agriculture for the plan during their work session on Wednesday, Sept. 6. Director of Economic Development Nicolas Langford detailed five key recommendations regarding Economic Development, starting with identifying priority sites and making strategic investments for site readiness. 

Policy for private industrial parks to encourage a diverse industrial base, developing a public industrial park for promoting growth and supporting high-paying jobs, master plans for downtown and North Suffolk/Harbor View mixed-use core districts, and creating a cultural arts district for Downtown. 

“Why would we invest in site readiness? We’ll stimulate the economy, create jobs, diversify our commercial industry mix, generate tax revenue to increase public services, and also so we can meet our infrastructure needs. It’s also a way that we can ensure and control and sustain growth for our local economy,” Langford said. “How can the city do this? Performing feasibility studies for industrial and retail and mixed-use developments. We can invest in infrastructure improvements, roads, utilities, broadband. Largely, we’ve already been doing that.”

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Langford recommended developing a policy for private industrial parks, saying this would encourage diverse users in private parks.

“Economic stability comes to mind, so it’s a good thing to have that diversity in our industrial parks. It creates a buffer against economic processions — if we’re too lopsided for one industry base if the industry base starts to decline, it might negatively impact our whole economy more than if we had a more stable diverse base,” he said.

According to Langford, the city can encourage diverse users in private parks, noting three ideas: providing incentives for diverse users, developing infrastructure and modifying the zoning code. Likewise, on developing a public industrial park to promote industry growth for high-paying jobs, Langford says that growth can help his team target an attractive industry. 

“How can the city do this? Acquire property, [and] procure a simple piece of land for development. We can develop infrastructure, we can focus on some pad readiness, and we can do some public/private partnerships,” Langford said. “If the city or the EDA should pursue this, when would be the most ideal time? After the comprehensive planning update or after we do the feasibility study to essentially qualify what types of development are suitable for particular pieces of land. Again, ahead of major infrastructure projects or when funds are available. So there’s a lot of federal dollars out there if we can get grants for this, or we can pursue public/private partnerships.”

Langford detailed implementation strategies for Downtown Suffolk and North Suffolk. He says this would provide predictability with developers aligning with the city’s vision and mission. He says that identifying catalytic areas, such as the area with Tidewater Community College near North Suffolk, and setting clear goals and plans for specific economic activities could control growth, provide livability, and make the area more attractive to residents and businesses. 

Langford ended his presentation on creating a cultural arts district for Downtown Suffolk. He says this would revitalize the downtown area and notes that arts provide an economic catalyst for “restaurants, hotels and shops.”

“Art district can instill community pride, community interaction, and personal well-being for Suffolk citizens, and also to attract talent. So a vibrant, cultural scene typically translates to a diverse, talented workforce and could encourage some college students to return to Suffolk to return home,” Langford said.

He said that the city or EDA can create this by having stakeholders engage with the community, artists, and business owners to participate in creating the plan. One thought is to provide incentives such as grants to artists, galleries and cultural organizations to get involved. He notes this could be done in parallel with an update to the Downtown Master Plan.

“Ultimately, if the community is calling out for this, if people want this, then it’s probably about the time to do it,” Langford ended.

Director of Planning and Community Development Kevin Wyne also presented updates regarding recommendations for agriculture. Wyne noted his department is working with the Agricultural Advisory Board and the importance of their feedback.

“They’ve been a prime stakeholder in some of the discussions we’ve had so far. We’ve gotten a lot of guidance from them as we identify the key priorities to them,” Wyne said. “A lot of it comes down to our rich agricultural heritage and protecting those. How do we protect those assets that are so important to the way of life folks in Suffolk has come to expect?”

Wyne’s presentation listed key priorities, including evaluating the potential of a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, the possibility of an Agricultural Reserve Program, and monitoring and providing an inventory of agricultural market activities to help better inform policy decisions. Also listed were expanding opportunities for agritourism, supporting emerging markets for agricultural enterprises, and evaluating the benefits of providing staff support to develop and implement agricultural industry initiatives. The last two priorities were amendments to the United Development Ordinance (UDO) regarding regulating utility scale solar installations and reviewing and revising minor subdivision requirements.

“Those are some key things that are on our radar as we are exploring some provisions to speak directly to the agricultural industry and the inheritance that it has in the City of Suffolk,” Wyne said.

While expressing that he was “on board” with what was presented, Council Member Timothy Johnson of the Holy Neck borough asked if it was in the intent of the comprehensive plan to lock these priorities down before the plan is presented.

Talking about solar and talking about the subdivision requirements and all of these things,” Johnson said. “I know the things we’re constantly looking at and trying to recognize a solution, but are we going to be able to tie some of this down before we present the 2045 plan?”

Wyne replied that as it relates to solar, his department is in a position to do that.

“We continue to review the UDO and all aspects as it relates to some of the development pressures we’re seeing in our rural areas in the city, and I think the purpose of ensuring that some of the language is in the 2045 comprehensive plan is important to the community and we don’t want to lose sight of that,” Wyne said. “Ensuring that we have key recommendations surrounding these issues, we’ll want to keep it on our radar, but ensure that we are actively developing policy that speaks to those specific recommendations.”

Regarding M2 properties that are “buttoned up” to residential areas, Council Member Leroy Bennett of the Cypress Borough asked how they look into having zoning next to the residential community in the future. Wyne said his department will do a deep dive on land use compatibility and provide further updates in upcoming meetings.

“That issue is a priority for the city now,” Wyne said. “We recognize that when the UDO was adopted in 1999 in the zoning citywide was rezoned, some zoning districts that were appropriate 25 years ago from a land use compatibility standpoint do not make a lot of sense today. And there are a lot of factors for that, but that’s something that we are exploring and we will be sure to address in the 2045 comprehensive plan.”