Suffolk’s 2045 Comprehensive Plan sparks debate at joint work session

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct an error that said a final vote would take place at the July 17 council meeting, as well as some errors in direct quotes. As of now, no public hearings or votes on the Comprehensive Plan have been scheduled.

Discussions over the draft 2045 comprehensive plan continued during last Wednesday’s joint work session between Suffolk City Council and Suffolk Planning Commission.

Suffolk Comprehensive Planning Manager Keith Cannady presented the plan, reflecting on the “intensive” two-year public input process that included focus groups, open houses, and online engagement. Key revisions for the plan included text and map changes to “increase clarity or correct typographical errors” and three future land use map changes based on owner comments and recommendations for removing growth area options B and E. 

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“So what we’ve recommended going forward is to go from five to three essentially,” Cannady said.

On implementation priorities, Cannady detailed immediate actions such as Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) text and map amendments for improving compatibility with the plan, reviewing and updating both incentives and land use regulations to promote traditional neighborhood designs as well as preparing for a master transportation plan to help Suffolk compete for limited state and federal funding.

“You get to the front of the line if you’ve already invested in a project [and] you’ve done some of the preliminary design and engineering work,” Cannady said. “This was really beyond the scope of this plan update, but we think it’s important for us to consider this as an action going forward.”

Other immediate actions included revising the UDO to promote affordable and workforce housing unit additions and preparing master plan updates for Suffolk’s historic villages to promote the private investment and preservation of each area’s historic and cultural resources. In addition, updates to the fiscal impact analysis currently required as part of the rezoning and conditional use permit process were also recommended. Cannady detailed that in Nov. 2020, the original request for proposal suggested that the city evaluate different growth strategies for their fiscal impacts.

“In other words, if we picked something very different from the growth management approach that we’re following, it would be good to evaluate that new alternative for its fiscal impact,” Cannady said. “As this plan developed, we realized we were going to stick with our basic growth management approach. So it didn’t really make sense to evaluate something that we weren’t going to seriously consider.”

When Vice Mayor Lue Ward asked Cannady if he and his team made any changes suggested by various groups they met with, Cannady replied, “We haven’t, Mr. Ward,” Cannady said. “I think what we wanted to make sure is that you all understood what we recommended several months ago and have been recommending, actually, for quite a while in a way to go forward with a fiscal impact analysis. I think there was some concern that we took out a step that we should have taken. That we should have had this analysis done because it was in the RFP, and I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe we made a good recommendation based on the plan that was developing and the strategies and the priorities that we needed to set going forward. I think it would have been, frankly, a waste of our time and our money to evaluate options that were essentially all the same. Just different versions of a smart growth strategy around the existing growth areas that the city identified and was working with for a long time. I mean, we weren’t radically changing our overall approach, and I wanted you all to be aware of that. I don’t think that’s consistent with some of the messages that you might be hearing from folks in the community.”

When Council Member Timothy Johnson asked Cannady if they would be looking at the fiscal impact analysis in the future, Cannady affirmed they would be looking at it at “a different scale.”

“We’ll continue to implement the fiscal impact analysis at the rezoning and use permit scale, but we’d like to make sure our ordinances are directing that effort in the proper way. In other words, those costs change after 10 or 20 years, those costs and services, so you need to go back in and update those,” Cannady said. “Broadly how you grow as a city, if you want to change that growth occurs, it would make sense to evaluate the fiscal impacts and use that information to help you decide which of those approaches you wanted to take.”

Along with Johnson emphasizing Suffolk as an agricultural city and expressing concern about the draft plan’s approach to transportation and “putting the roads before everything else,” Council Member Shelley Butler-Barlow talked about the fears amongst Suffolk community members about the lack of use of the fiscal impact analysis.

“I’m going to over simplify this: but it was in there in the plan, and then it was out of the plan, and then the statement was made that ‘Oh, we’ll do it later.’ And so, that’s caused some concern,” Butler-Barlow said. “What I’m hearing from you is that, because the growth is going to happen along the same lines as we’ve had growth in the past, that there wasn’t a real need for a whole novel fiscal impact analysis. But we are talking about some big growth areas…”

Planning Commission Vice Chairman Mills Staylor expressed concerns about the “enormous” increase in the growth areas shown in the draft plan. Asking about the impact of the changes on Route 58 and its impact on farmland, Cannady said that he “hadn’t done that analysis” but noted a 35 percent reduction. Staylor said that the main comment presented to the Steering Committee and other public meetings was preserving the city’s agricultural attractiveness.

“And it looks like if we’re going to increase it that much, we’re going against what some citizens obviously have looked forward to,” Staylor said. 

Reflecting on a prior draft plan presentation held at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church, Commissioner Oliver Creekmore commended planning staff for reaching out to the community via the steering committee and meetings.

“We’ve involved a lot more people in this process, and as a result of that, the planners have gotten good feedback and it will show in this document,” Creekmore said.

Both responding to Council Member John Rector’s two-part question on council being able to see more detail on the fiscal impact analysis done on current projects and checking its accuracy on development following its fruition, Director of Planning and Community Development Kevin Wyne replied that it was “our desire” to get the fiscal impact analysis model correct.

“The goal there is to standardize and fully understand all the impacts that a development will have on the community from a fiscal perspective at the onset to eliminate the need to come back and verify,” Wyne said. “If we standardize it at the front, we will have real data at the time of rezoning or conditional use permit to present kind of that full information as a part of our staff reports as it relates to land use decisions.”

City Manager Albert S. Moor II followed up on Rector’s question, verifying the accuracy of the fiscal impact analysis.

“As we develop this data and standardize, that will continue as we’re looking forward, we have to look back to see where we are to keep tweaking it. So we’ll have to do those checks, to make sure our model going forward is still on track,” Moor said.

Council Member Roger Fawcett and Mayor Michael Duman discussed the need to reevaluate the employment centers in the draft plan. Duman expressed his issue with “a lot of green” in the plan.

“That needs to be tweaked up some. I don’t think we need to be encouraging strictly that type of development in that employment center area,” Duman said. 

In closing comments, Planning Commission Chairman Arthur Singleton reflected on the 2001 UDO and the original goal of not becoming “another Chesapeake or Virginia Beach.”

“And in almost 24 years later, we’ve managed to keep that there. If we go hog wild with this COMP plan and open up too many doors, we’re going to be another Chesapeake or Virginia Beach and be [overrun],” Singleton said. “Those people you were talking about want to come out to Suffolk now, they came out to Suffolk but they want what they had where they came from, and that’s the problem. You can’t come to a rural area and expect to have the things you had when you were in the city. So we’ve got to keep that separation of the towns agriculture [and] the urban, we’ve got to draw the line in the sand and not erase the lines.”

The draft 2045 comprehensive plan will be presented to the Planning Commission on June 18, and the City Council will give its final approval on July 17. 

To view the draft 2045 comprehensive plan and for more information, go to To watch the presentation, go to