CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — A group of advocates in Chesapeake are looking to put a referendum on the November 2023 ballot to urge leaders to put in more protections for rural land in the southern part of the city.

This comes after City Council recently voted to buy 1,420 acres of farmland at the North Carolina state line in order to create the Coastal Virginia Commerce Park. The hope is to attract a large manufacturing company to the site.

The petitioners want a change to the city’s comprehensive plan, which helps to guide city planning and development, to allow for more protections for the environment and rural character of their community.

Mayor Rick West contends the comprehensive plan already does much of what the petition asks.

For roughly five years, the city has been working with Virginia Beach’s Frank T. Williams, to create a “mega-site” on his land that sits with Route 17 directly to its West, the North Carolina state line directly to its south, Cavalier Wildlife Management Area to the East and Ballahack Road is North.

A lack of “shovel-ready” properties has been cited as an issue in attracting large manufacturers, like Toyota and Ford, to the region.

Several residents have spoken out against the plans, concerned about the overall plan’s environmental impact.

Renee Cobb said it is how the Rural Chesapeake Preservation Committee was born. She filed the petition for a referendum with the Circuit Court clerk.

“Together as community stakeholders, we have observed and participated in the overwhelming citizenry’s resistance to this project. We have been shocked by the manner in which this project was pushed through,” Cobb said in a release. “The petition would indeed give the people a much greater voice, one that would allow for the citizens to have a more impactful input as to the direction of the future course for our city.”

The group would have to get 32,000 signatures from qualified voters of the city by April 15 for the effort to be considered Cobb said.

The question would read: “Should the Chesapeake City Council review & revise the Comprehensive Land Use Plan to include comprehensive protections for the existing citizens, farms, and businesses, as well as making preservation of the environment and rural character
that historic Southern Chesapeake provides a priority?”

The question does not specify the protections the group is seeing.

In an email, committee member Cindy Walker clarified the group’s stance.

“Our committee is not anti-development, we do not wish to portray as no-growth,” Walker said. “We believe in limited, but geographically smart growth. Maintaining a habitat for wildlife, especially around Great Dismal Swamp & Cavalier Wildlife Refuge. Reduce flooding experienced by communities and protect our natural resources.”

Mayor West said he feels the city’s comprehensive plan already includes protections. The plan includes language that states “the location of a unique economic development use should be consistent with the provisions of the Northwest River Watershed Protection District.”

“City Council is going to protect this property, going to protect any adverse use,” West said back in November.

It’s also already been written into the city’s comprehensive plan that “cargo container storage and repair, automobile auctions, salvage yards, solid waste facilities/landfills,” will not be approved uses for the site.

In addition, the rezoning included language that requires trees to be planned along the right of way, in open spaces, and buffers around the entire site.

“The larger-than-normally-required trees will assist in quickly establishing a substantial tree canopy in the park,” city documents stated. “All building, parking and site lighting will be required to be ‘full cut off’ compliant which will eliminate glare and prevent light spillage onto other properties or right of ways.

The documents conclude by saying “the Coastal Virginia Commerce Park layout will be designed in such a manner that incorporates superior communal connected open space and recreational elements.”