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2017-09-27 / Featured / Front Page

Citizens voice concerns over megasite plan

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


County Administrator Joe Casey talks with county residents during a meeting at Carver Middle School concerning the planned industrial megasite in Chester. 
JAMES HASKINS County Administrator Joe Casey talks with county residents during a meeting at Carver Middle School concerning the planned industrial megasite in Chester. JAMES HASKINS Hundreds of Chesterfield residents descended on Carver Middle School last Wednesday night for the opportunity to weigh in on the Chesterfield Economic Development Authority’s plan to purchase nearly 1,700 acres of property south of state Route 10 and rezone it for use as an industrial megasite.

County leaders had other ideas.

Rather than hold a traditional town hall-style meeting, in which county staff present an overview of the project and receive public comments, the county structured the event as an open house.

Staff from the county’s transportation and planning departments, as well as the local school system, were deployed at stations in different parts of the school’s large commons area. They had large color maps laid out on tables and mounted on easels and were prepared to provide information about their respective parts of the project.

It generally was not well-received. While some attendees visited the stations and spoke with staff, many others expressed frustration with the manner in which the county conducted its initial public outreach on the multimillion-dollar megasite acquisition. Chester resident Mike Uzel took the floor at one point and began reading from a list of questions he had prepared about the project.

A large group of people gathered in the center of the room to listen to Uzel. But with no access to a microphone and staff talking with citizens at the stations, his remarks mostly were drowned out by ambient noise.

“I came here expecting a presentation, not six tables with crowds of people,” Uzel said. “I don’t think anybody can get the information they want in a format like this.”

Multiple requests for people to stop talking did little to quell the din, and instead seemed to fuel the frustration of citizens who couldn’t hear what Uzel was saying.

Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, stepped forward and attempted to explain why the county opted not to hold a town hall-style meeting.

“All you get is people shouting and you don’t get anything done,” she said.

Jaeckle was loudly jeered after suggesting that county leaders didn’t expect so many people to attend the first of four planned community meetings on the megasite.

“Can we just hear from him?” one man yelled, pointing to Uzel. “All you’re doing is making it worse because you people are stupid.”

Others were incredulous that the county wasn’t prepared for a large crowd after sending out 6,500 meeting notices over the past two weeks.

“How can they say they didn’t expect this many people? They have homeowners who are concerned about their property,” said Nichole Fowler, a resident of the Stoney Glen South subdivision, which is adjacent to the proposed megasite. Fowler and her husband, Leonard, were among an estimated 300 people who attended the two-hour meeting.

Both parking lots at the south Chester school were jammed with vehicles some 30 minutes before its scheduled 7 p.m. start. By 6:45, there were already about 50 people in line outside the commons.

Some wanted to learn more about the county’s plan to spend $15.5 million to acquire the nearly 1,700-acre property and additional millions for related infrastructure, including construction of a 2½-mile stretch of the East-West Freeway to connect the megasite with Interstate 95.

State and local officials project that a large-scale industrial manufacturer could bring as many as 5,000 new jobs to Chesterfield.

Matoaca Supervisor Steve Elswick told a citizen that over the next 10 years, the county’s high schools will graduate 50,000 students, a certain number of whom will not go to college.

“We have to provide jobs for people,” Elswick said. “We’re trying to make it a win-win and bring in good jobs without affecting your quality of life.”

According to Garrett Hart, director of Chesterfield Economic Development, the plan is to develop only the middle 500 or 600 acres of the megasite and leave the remainder of the wooded property in its present state as a natural buffer from adjacent properties.

That’s little comfort to citizens whose homes will be negatively impacted by construction of critical transportation infrastructure.

Jesse Goad, a longtime Chesterfield resident, said a planned rail line that will be built alongside the East-West Freeway will cut through the backyard of his Treely Road property.

“The county has allowed developers to build houses all over this area. Now they want to come through and destroy our subdivision,” he added. “I’ve been investing in my home for 30 years, but I’m not going to be able to sell it with a railroad at my back door.”

Goad noted the East-West Freeway threatens his property because the current alignment tracks much farther south than it did when the road was added to the county’s Thoroughfare Plan in the late 1980s.

Transportation staff considered six different paths for the freeway and selected the one that has the least impact on adjacent property owners.

“The people who will be affected by the road … when you build any road, it’s just a very upsetting, stressful situation,” Jaeckle said.

Both Jaeckle and Hart acknowledged in retrospect, the county should have begun community outreach on the megasite by holding a town hall and giving citizens a chance to publicly express their concerns about the project.

“When you use the word ‘megasite,’ there’s no way it could be anything but a big deal,” Hart said. “Even though the [meeting notices] we sent out said it was going to be an open house, people obviously were expecting a presentation. That created angst and animosity and added to the distrust because people maybe felt like we didn’t prepare one on purpose.

“We were trying to do the best we could to get information to people, but with as large as the crowd was, [an open house] was not the way to communicate most effectively.”

The Economic Development Authority has scheduled three additional community meetings before its zoning application is heard by the Planning Commission on Oct. 17.

The next meeting will take place Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Carver Middle auditorium. There will be both a town hall for citizens who want to make public comments and stations set up in the commons for those seeking information about a specific aspect of the project.

That meeting was originally expected to be held at Second Baptist Church on West Hundred Road, but county leaders decided the church doesn’t have enough space to accommodate the type of crowd that attended last week’s event.

There are also two meetings scheduled for Oct. 3: an open house from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at The Heights Baptist Church on Jefferson Davis Highway, and a presentation with open house from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Thomas Dale High auditorium on West Hundred Road. ¦ 

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