SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – After failing to convince enough members of City Council to put a stop to a project to put 4.7 million square feet of warehouses on 540 acres of property along U.S. Route 460, opponents are now turning to the courts.
Opponents recently filed a civil suit in Suffolk Circuit Court, just over four weeks after council voted 5-3 in favor of rezoning of the property from agriculture and general commercial to heavy industrial zoning to support the Port 460 Logistics Center, also known as the Port 460 project, which has been designed to accommodate 10 warehouses and includes five commercial retail buildings fronting the property along Route 460.
“The Council’s approval of the Application was unreasonable, without valid basis in law, arbitrary and capricious,” the lawsuit states, “based on consideration of inappropriate factors, and made without giving due consideration to factors it should have considered such as the health, safety, order, prosperity, the Conservation of the City’s natural and historic resources and the general welfare of the City and its residents.
“Further, the Port 460 project associated with the Application is inconsistent with the (City’s) long-term vision for land use and growth management as outlined in the City’s own Comprehensive Plan and approval of the Application would be inconsistent with the zoning of nearby properties.”
A city spokesperson declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Increased traffic, especially with trucks, has been projected to come as a result of the project and has been a focus of the opposition, which has also cited negative effects to the health, safety and welfare of residents while also detracting from what they say is the city’s rural character.
Daily, there are 43,056 vehicles and 5,238 trucks on Route 58, according to 2021 traffic data. It is projected to increase to 51,002 vehicles and 7,700 trucks by 2045. On Route 460, 24,187 vehicles and 4,469 trucks use it daily, per the 2021 data, and that is projected to increase to 29,064 vehicles and 4,700 trucks by 2045.
Mayor Mike Duman, along with Councilmen Roger Fawcett, Donald Goldberg, Lue Ward and LeOtis Williams, voted in favor of the rezoning. Councilmembers Tim Johnson and Shelley Butler Barlow voted against. Council had tabled the matter at its Aug. 17 meeting. The Planning Commission had previously recommended the rezoning in a 5-3 vote.
The lawsuit names the City Council, and the members, as defendants. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Dale Roberts, Gerard Cella and Sterling Taylor – Roberts and Taylor living on Pitchkettle Road and Cella living on Kings Fork Road.
The Matan Companies, based in Frederick, Md., unveiled its proposal in June, though it had been working with the property owner, Jesse Williams, and city officials on details surrounding the project since Sept. 2021.
The property also borders U.S. Route 58, and Pitchkettle, Murphys Mill and Kings Fork roads.
Opponents want to have council’s decision to approve the rezoning nullified and seek injunctive relief, costs and any other relief the court deems appropriate. The Courtland-based law firm Randall, Page & Bruch PC is representing them.
Denise Murden, one of those opponents, told council immediately following its vote that they would continue to fight the project. She and others rallied outside City Hall ahead of the vote.
“As many of you have pointed out, there has never been as much outcry about an issue in Suffolk than we have seen in the past few months,” Murden said. “There is still much to do, and while you voted yes tonight, the citizens are not done. We will use every opportunity we have to stop or slow down the construction of the monstrosity that you approved tonight without really hearing what we said.”
And the lawsuit is the next step.
However, with the rezoning approval, the Matan Companies can move forward with the project.
“We are eager to kick Port 460 into the development stage in an effort to support the Port of Virginia and create an employment hub that will stimulate economic growth, both locally and regionally,” said Karl Morris, Director of Development for Matan, in a news release following the affirmative vote. “And we are excited about being a part of the Suffolk community.”
In the first phase of the project, the Matan Companies plans to build two, 350,000 square foot warehouses and a 1 million square foot warehouse on a speculative basis beginning in the second quarter of 2023, with full buildout of this phase expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2024.
Lewis told council ahead of the vote that the developer was committed that, “within a matter of days” of the vote, it would begin the survey work, and engineering is expected to begin next spring, with 90% of the design work to be completed by spring 2024.
Lewis said that at that point, the city would be in prime position to go after state and federal road construction money. That work includes widening Route 460, also known as Pruden Boulevard, to six lanes from Route 58 past Kings Fork Road, and widen it to four lanes to Lake Prince Drive. It also includes building a diverging diamond interchange where Routes 58 and 460 intersect.
The road work is currently estimated at $86.7 million, with engineering design to cost about $8.4 million for the road improvements from Route 58 to Lake Prince Drive.
Developers have committed to paying $6.6 million for those improvements, and Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III has also committed to find money for the city to improve its “key freight corridors.” The Port of Virginia’s board approved providing another $1 million from its Port Opportunity Fund, which requires an equal city match.
While many Suffolk residents oppose the project, it does have some high-profile backers, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Port of Virginia and Doug Smith, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Alliance. The port’s vice president of development and transportation policy, Barbara Nelson, spoke before council in support of the project.
Virginia Port Authority Executive Director and CEO Stephen Edwards wrote a letter affirming his support, and said afterward that the port is ready “to collaborate with Matan to support the success of the Port 460 project.”
“We see Matan’s decision to develop the Port 460 Logistics Center as a vote of confidence in the future of the Port of Virginia,” Edwards said. “It is a strategic move to capitalize on this port’s growth and the $1.4 billion we are investing to ensure we remain modern, competitive and efficient.”
Miller said business-ready commercial, industrial and warehouse sites such as what is expected to come from the Port 460 project are needed to support Virginia’s efforts to ID economic development opportunities to bring in new business.
City staff has estimated that the $420 million project would create 2,600 construction jobs and 9,000 long-term jobs, though opponents have sharply questioned those projections.
Environmental approvals are still needed for the project. The Matan Companies submitted a joint permit application for federal and state permits through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It has yet to make a permit decision and took comments on it through Sept. 5.
No hearing date has been set in Suffolk Circuit Court.
Read the lawsuit here.