“It’s like trying to plan a wedding and there’s a lot to be done with planning a wedding, and obviously the county is not planning this wedding very well.”
That’s how BARD member and Glebe Point resident, Amy Cannon, described the county’s handling of the Mataoca Megasite, which was announced last August after Governor Terry McAuliffe revealed the plan to acquire the property off Branders Bridge and develop it as an industrial megasite.
Since then it has been an uphill battle for BARD (Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development) members in their fight to dismantle it. The group, which was formed by Mike Uzel in 2007 in opposition to the failed Branner Station development, have attended Senate meetings, budget meetings, and held their own meetings in a concerted effort to block the megasite from happening.
They even proposed that county officials instead develop the megasite on the Tranlin site, an 800-acre site targeted by a Chinese pulp and paper company. The development was announced in 2014 and Governor McAuliffe claimed it would bring in 2,000 jobs by 2020 and the company would invest $2 billion over five years.
What was touted as the largest Chinese investment and job creation project in Virginia history and is the largest Chinese greenfield economic development project in the United States is now a bust as the Virginia Economic Development Partnership asked the Attorney General’s office to recover the remainder of a $5 million grant to Tranlin after the company missed the deadline to repay the grant.
Despite BARD members’ efforts however, their counterproposal was not successful. According to Uzel, Garrett Hart, the director of Chesterfield Economic Development, said they need the both Tranlin and the Mataoca Megasite in order to be successful.
“He said the issue isn’t whether it can be one or the other, he’s saying that they need both plus many more throughout the county, which to us is kind of concerning, it sounds like they want a megasite on every corner,” Uzel said. “I read that Dorothy Jaeckle had said the site was too small for a megasite, but if you think about it, the Tranlin site was large enough for a $2 billion company supposedly. The [Matoaca] megasite they’re only wanting a $1 billion company, so I don’t exactly understand how it’s too small.”
BARD’s current target is the Chesterfield Economic Development Authority (EDA) and why its appointed business leaders are in charge of using taxpayer money to fund development deals like the megasite. The group has an ally in Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who serves the 11th District (which represents Amelia County, Colonial Heights, and part of Chesterfield County), and proposed a bill that would require local government approval of all economic development authority expenditures.
Chase’s bill was defeated by one vote last month and after she brought it up for reconsideration at the Senate Local Government Committee’s Feb. 6 meeting, the members agreed to carry the bill over to next year and a study will be done on all EDAs throughout the state. Uzel said he hopes the study will shed more light on how EDas operate and though he knows some are more transparent than others, he is concerned about Chesterfield’s transparency.
Julie Ranson echoed Uzel’s statements about the concern for transparency and said that when BARD asks how the county is going to spend all that money on the megasite, they are told it will be with the money from the EDA. Ranson said Chase did research and it showed that there was more taxpayer money flowing in than money from the EDA.
Phil Lohr, a BARD member who lives on Chester, said Ranson requested budget numbers, which revealed that the county regularly budgeted on a yearly basis to give the EDA $125,000 for reimbursements and for the 2016 budget, it was $216,000; in 2017, it was $283,000; but for 2018, they have already topped $200,000 in reimbursement money on a budget of $125,000.
Ranson said the budget office blamed the budget being over because they were going to do ground maintenance with the community department.
Those in favor of the megasite, like ChamberRVA who recently voted in support of it, have claimed that it could bring in 5,000 to 10,000 jobs however BARD members do not think they have a project as officials have yet to announce which company will be operating on the site.
Lohr said Hart admitted to him that the state did not bring a project to him, but that a third party representing Shoosmith brought it to him and offered him part of the land in exchange for the county building the road, water and sewer on the site, so they can develop it residentially. Lohr also talked about the county’s I2 plan, which allows them to take heavy industrial (I3) uses into light industrial (I2) areas all over the county.
“They want to take this heavy industrial right next to neighbors, next to interstates in the Midlothian 288 area, or anywhere else in the county where they can locate enough property adjacent to residential [areas],” Lohr said. “The big holdup of the I3 zoning ordinance is it specifically says you should not put any I3 heavy industrial next to residential neighborhoods, heavily dense neighborhoods, and that’s the problem they face in this case, they pretty much misrepresented to us at the meetings that this zoning was consistent with the comprehensive plan. It is not, they admitted that after the meeting, and after meetings, they took a yes off, it’s not consistent.”
Amy Cannon, a Glebe Point resident like Ranson, said the megasite is the only proposed megasite in the middle of a heavy residential area in the country with a high population density and the county is eager to do something with it. Cannon also said people don’t understand how many will be affected nor are enough people talking about the North-South Road, the Linear Park property that is owned by the county and (if developed) will come right over Ecoff and go all the way to Centralia. Lohr said Hart told them in order for the megasite to be successful, they must have both the North-South connector and the East-West parkway.
Despite the twists and turns and challenges they’ve faced from the county, the fight continues on for BARD. Though Ranson said the group needs more people to get involved and educate themselves about the megasite, they are grateful for the financial support they have received from the community (the group has a GoFundMe). Lohr said they have help from groups in the Midlothian area and that they are strongly considering approaching the state attorney general. Uzel said they already have the draft letter.