2018-02-07 / Featured / Front Page

Megasite opponents target county EDA


As a state Senate committee convened last week in Richmond to consider legislation that would limit the autonomy of local economic development authorities, Chesterfield’s EDA board was meeting to approve another six-figure expenditure related to its controversial megasite proposal.Members of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development at Tranlin's site off of Willis Road in eastern Chesterfield.  Photo by James HaskinsMembers of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development at Tranlin's site off of Willis Road in eastern Chesterfield. Photo by James Haskins

The timing didn’t go unnoticed by the more than 30 citizens who crowded into a conference room at the county’s economic development office last Tuesday afternoon. Each wore a white “No Megasite” sticker.

Meanwhile, a dozen members of Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development were at the state capitol attending a meeting of the Senate Local Government committee, where five spoke in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield.

BARD founder Mike Uzel asked the committee to vote for Chase’s bill, which would require local governing bodies to formally approve all expenditures by their appointed economic development authorities, and “shed light in this dark corner of our local government.”

(Update: Chase’s bill was reconsidered during the committee’s Feb. 6 meeting, but it was carried over until the 2019 session for further study.) Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said the legislation wouldn’t have any impact on Chesterfield because the board already approves its EDA’s expenditures through the budget process.

By contrast, there was no discussion before or after the county EDA voted to execute a new option to purchase a 1,600-acre residential parcel located south of state Route 10. It hopes to rezone the property and develop it for use as an industrial megasite.

The EDA will pay $100,000 to the property’s owner, The Thomas Company LLC, for a six-month option that took effect Feb. 3 at 12 a.m.

The authority needed the agreement to keep the land off the market as it works with county staff and prepares its zoning case for presentation to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

It already has committed to pay $15.5 million to acquire the 1,600-acre property and an adjacent 138-acre parcel, contingent on the Board of Supervisors rezoning both from residential to industrial. The EDA ultimately plans to use 1,675 of the 1,738-acre total.

John O’Neill, the EDA’s attorney, said it negotiated another option with Nina Shoosmith, owner of The Thomas Company LLC, so it “can continue to do due diligence” on the high-profile megasite proposal.

Board member Harril Whitehurst moved to execute the option agreement. The motion carried unanimously and the three-minute meeting was adjourned with no further comment.

“I think it’s ridiculous to use taxpayer money to determine whether or not we should be buying private property,” said Wayne Virag, a BARD leader and one of many Chester residents who oppose the megasite plan.

According to Garrett Hart, the county’s economic development director, the EDA has paid more than $988,000 in pre-development costs related to the megasite – including $190,000 in purchase option fees on the two adjoining pieces of real estate.

The EDA agreed to an initial purchase option on the larger parcel on Aug. 1, 2016 – nearly 13 months before then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced its plan to develop the megasite during a press conference on the steps of the county’s historic courthouse.

The announcement caught citizens off guard and immediately sparked a backlash amid questions about the EDA’s transparency and accountability.

Despite paying more than $67,000 over a five-month period to Capital Results, a Richmond-based public affairs and business consulting firm, the EDA has encountered vehement citizen resistance since shortly after McAuliffe’s announcement. The EDA obtained a 6-month extension on its original option to purchase the 1,600-acre property last August, hopeful that it would be able to obtain zoning by the time it expired last week. Multiple delays to that timetable necessitated a new option.

The EDA’s option on the 1,600-acre property now expires in early August. Its 12-month option on the smaller parcel runs through May 23.

Gib Sloan, chairman of the Planning Commission, insisted the EDA’s zoning case won’t be placed on the commission’s agenda until it holds community meetings to address numerous questions raised last fall.

“At the end of the day, the EDA is acting in the role of developer. There are many developers who submit applications to the county and want their cases to be heard as quickly as possible,” Sloan said. “But I’m going to vet this case as thoroughly as I would any other case that comes before the commission.

“They told citizens they would get back to them with answers,” he added. “They should be able to answer questions with a lot more specificity than they could before.” ¦

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