2018-01-17 / Featured / Front Page

Should the megasite go where Tranlin hasn't?

With the proposed paper mill on thin ice, group proposes a solution: Relocate the Chester megasite

Members of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development (from left: Phil Lohr, Mike Uzel, Mary Ann Stewart, Linda Gagliardo and Steve Atkinson) at the proposed Tranlin site off Willis Road in eastern Chesterfield. 
JAMES HASKINS Members of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development (from left: Phil Lohr, Mike Uzel, Mary Ann Stewart, Linda Gagliardo and Steve Atkinson) at the proposed Tranlin site off Willis Road in eastern Chesterfield. JAMES HASKINS A citizen group that opposes the county’s plan to create an industrial megasite in a densely populated part of south Chester has submitted a counterproposal to county officials, asking them to develop the megasite on an existing industrial parcel off Jefferson Davis Highway.

Mike Uzel, a leader of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, sent the group’s proposal via email to County Administrator Joe Casey, Economic Development Director Garrett Hart and all members of both the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.

“For many reasons, we think this is a much more responsible approach than what the county is proposing,” Uzel said in an interview last week.

Instead of building an industrial megasite in Chester, some citizens say the better location is the 800-acre Tranlin site off Willis Road, which already has good road access and proximity to the James River. 
JAMES HASKINS Instead of building an industrial megasite in Chester, some citizens say the better location is the 800-acre Tranlin site off Willis Road, which already has good road access and proximity to the James River. JAMES HASKINS BARD wants the county to abandon its current megasite plan and instead acquire 800 acres of industrial property originally targeted by a Chinese company for construction of a $2 billion paper plant.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe hailed the project in 2014, claiming Tranlin’s investment in northeastern Chesterfield would create 2,000 jobs and bolster the county’s lagging commercial tax base.

Tranlin used about $3.2 million in state grant funding – part of an expected $30 million economic development incentive package – to purchase its first 58 acres in the James River Industrial Park, which is located near the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Willis Road.

Now there are significant questions about whether the project will ever come to fruition. In late October, Tranlin missed its deadline for repaying the $5 million it owes the state. It instead offered $150,000 and agreed to pay the balance over the next six months with 10 percent interest. It also gave the state a first-priority lien on the Chesterfield property.

The Observer inquired with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership last week about the status of Tranlin’s repayment plan, but received no response by press time Monday afternoon.

Hart acknowledged in an email last week that Tranlin didn’t renew its option to purchase the remainder of the property needed for construction of the paper plant.

“We are actively marketing it to other prospects while we continue to talk with Tranlin about their future plans,” he wrote.

BARD’s proposal notes that the troubled Tranlin deal is “a problem” for state economic development officials; developing that property as a megasite to attract a large-scale manufacturing operation, such as an automotive or aerospace company, “would help solve their loss of the Chinese company.”

The group also maintains that if the county needs commercial development to reduce its historic dependence on residential property taxes, there are many advantages to the Tranlin site.

For one, the property is located in a part of Chesterfield that already has other heavy industry. It wouldn’t need to be rezoned and there would be minimal, if any, impact to residential properties in the area.

By contrast, the 1,675-acre property the county’s Economic Development Authority wants to purchase and develop into a megasite south of state Route 10 is located in a largely residential area, surrounded by single-family homes. According to a study by the Greater Richmond Partnership, nearly 41,000 people live within 5 miles of the proposed megasite.

GRP staff conducted a detailed review of 30 large properties listed on the website of McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a South Carolina firm that evaluates the long-term development viability of industrial megasites. Most had less than 15,000 people living within a 5-mile radius.

In a memo to GRP President and CEO Barry Matherly, a copy of which was obtained by BARD members and provided to the Observer, a McCallum Sweeney employee acknowledged that most industrial megasites are located in “sparsely populated rural areas.”

Chesterfield’s comprehensive plan, which guides the local government’s decisions on land use and development, doesn’t recommend heavy industrial uses be located adjacent to densely populated residential areas.

More than 1,000 people attended a series of community meetings in Chester last October and many expressed concern about the impact of an industrial manufacturing operation on their adjacent neighborhoods.

BARD currently has about 1,200 signatures on a petition opposing the megasite.

“As a citizen, you have to wonder why our elected officials are turning their backs to us like this,” said Phil Lohr, a BARD member who has clashed with the county on a number of other development projects.

Hart insists the EDA intends to develop only about 650 of the 1,675 acres and will maintain the rest of the property as a wooded buffer between the megasite and residential properties.

Such a buffer wouldn’t be necessary at the Tranlin site, says the BARD proposal, which also notes that it already has access to transportation (road and rail) infrastructure needed for a large-scale industrial manufacturer.

The state has completed an interchange modification report for the proposed $43 million reconstruction of the Interstate 95/ Willis Road interchange. That project is needed to modernize the interchange and accommodate increased industrial traffic in the area.

It could cost more than twice that amount to construct a 2½-mile stretch of the East-West Freeway connecting the south Chester megasite to Interstate 95 at the Ruffin Mill Road exit. The EDA also needs to acquire additional property to extend rail service to the megasite and build a North-South Road that will eventually link the megasite with state Route 288.

Such transportation upgrades are necessary to make the property commercially viable, Hart said. County officials expect to get funding from the state, but so far have offered few specifics.

BARD’s proposal also says the Tranlin site is preferable as a megasite because it would bring jobs to an economically depressed stretch of northern Jefferson Davis Highway.

When McAuliffe announced the county’s intention to develop the south Chester megasite last August, he predicted it could generate as many as 10,000 new jobs – roughly half of which would come from parts suppliers and other related businesses that would be located around the megasite.

The northern U.S. Route 1 corridor has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in Chesterfield. Increasing commercial development in that area is a primary goal of the county’s Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan, which calls for the creation of a “downtown” commercial district at the intersection of Route 1 and Willis Road.

“When you consider all of our points, it’s almost too obvious,” Lohr said. “Why would the county not want to do this?”

According to Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle, who is facing considerable political pressure from megasite opponents, only 470 acres of the 800-acre Tranlin property is usable for development.

“It does not meet the requirements of companies seeking to locate on a megasite,” she noted via email last week.

Uzel expressed skepticism about Jaeckle’s claim and said the county is looking for reasons not to consider alternative sites.

He and others have suggested the county is using the megasite as justification to begin building the East-West Freeway and eventually open up a wide swath of rural southern Chesterfield for new residential and commercial development.

The county’s Thoroughfare Plan envisions the road running from Interstate 95 all the way to Route 360 west of Grange Hall Elementary, where it would connect with the planned Powhite Parkway extension.

“As part of planning and development, the county is continually looking at land parcels and evaluating the properties’ potential to be used to diversify the tax base and provide employment and commercial services and products to its citizens,” Jaeckle wrote.

“Chesterfield is a highly attractive residential community. The population is expected to increase by 27 percent from 340,000 in 2017 to 425,000 by 2040. This would be following the trajectory that has been consistent since 1970. It would be irresponsible to not plan to pair that residential growth with development that supports it.”

While Hart agrees with Uzel’s contention that the Tranlin site is “a great industrial property,” he maintains it’s not a matter of either developing it or the south Chester megasite.

“To increase the tax base and create jobs for Chesterfield citizens, we need both sites and we need more sites in addition to these two,” he noted in his email. “This is not a one and done issue. Having available property is key to Chesterfield as it competes for quality development and jobs.

“The [megasite] property is very unique because of its size and proximity to infrastructure and workforce. If rezoned it will allow the county, region and the commonwealth to compete for projects we have been unable to attract in the past, but it is far from the only site for manufacturing that will be needed in the county.” ¦

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