Plan for Wegmans distribution center faces opposition in Black rural Virginia community – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

After dozens of triumphant store openings down the Atlantic coast, Wegmans Food Markets has run into unexpected opposition in the rural Virginia community of Brown Grove, where it hopes to build a massive distribution center
The 1.1 million-square-foot-complex would cost an estimated $175 million, marking the largest investment in company history. It would be Wegmans’ third, adding to those in Rochester and Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and would allow the company to continue its rapid expansion south. 
Brown Grove residents, though, have resisted fiercely. They say the development would disrupt the unmarked burial sites of some of the early Black residents who built the community after being emancipated from slavery. It would also destroy at least 15 acres of wetlands, and possibly as many as 32 acres.
Atanya Lewis, a Brown Grove native and member of the Brown Grove Preservation Group, called the small community an exemplar of the American dream.
“This is a place where folks had to work really hard to overcome obstacles and build this thriving community, and then over the last 50 years it’s been whittled down and eventually destroyed,” she said. “We don’t want it to end up being folklore that we tell our kids about but they can’t visit.”
Wegmans has prevailed in a series of land-use and regulatory decisions so far this year, though other appeals and lawsuits remain active. It closed on the purchase of the 220-acre site in question last month at the cost of $4 million.
In an email, Wegmans spokeswoman Deana Percassi said the company is “planning to start work on the site soon.” The distribution center is expected to create 700 jobs and would be one of the county’s largest taxpayers, according to a Hanover County official.
The project received $6.2 million in economic development incentives from Hanover County and the state. Gov. Ralph Northam touted it as “a significant win” when it was announced in 2019.
The local opposition comes from Black residents with historical roots to the Brown Grove settlement as well as those living in nearby subdivisions. The community is less than 20 miles from Richmond, the state capital.
One of their main concerns is that the development will take place on top of unmarked graves in the wooded area. Such graves have not been definitively located, and Wegmans said it searched diligently and found none, but long-time residents insist the company didn’t look closely enough or in the right places.
“We don’t believe there’s been an exhaustive effort to identify the location of those remains or determine definitively that they’re not there — and we know they are,” Atanya Lewis said. “We owe it to our ancestors not to pave over or dig up or build on top of our history.”
More: Brown Grove Residential Rural Historic District application
In an interview with the Washington Post, David DeMascole, Wegmans’ director of supply chain planning, said it’s not reasonable to prevent development indefinitely for the mere prospect of unknown gravesites.
“This land is commercially available, zoned industrial,” DeMascole says. “The fact that if these remains are there, and they have not been found or identified — should that mean that the land should just remain vacant forever?”
Another key concern is the environmental impact. Wegmans first estimated that six acres of wetlands habitat would be destroyed, but a later report increased that figure to nearly 14 acres.
Opponents believe the true affected area is closer to 30 acres, because adjacent wetlands would be harmed by the construction as well.
“These wetlands provide a very specialized habitat for an awful lot of species of plants and animals in Virginia,” said Rod Morgan, a member of Protect Hanover, a group formed to fight the project. “This habitat has been destroyed pretty steadily over the years.”
The site in question is zoned for industrial use of the type that Wegmans is proposing. It is bordered by a concrete factory and a local airport; on the other side of the airport is I-95, a major highway that split Brown Grove when it was built 60 years ago.
To Brown Grove residents, those industrial uses and the resulting environmental degradation fit into a pattern of racist land use decisions that have harmed the heritage, economic prospects and physical well-being of the community’s mostly Black residents.
Morgan and Lewis pointed out that the community was built on the wetlands in the first place precisely because, immediately after emancipation, it was the only land available to them.
“It’s the same old story,” Lewis said. “(Black people) have to stay in a certain area that’s not very desirable. But once I-95 was built it’s becoming prime real estate. … So now they say, ‘We want it back, and (the residents) will just have to deal with the environmental consequences and health consequences and everything else.'”
Renada Harris, another member of the Brown Grove Preservation Group, likened the residents’ argument to the one Wegmans made against the Whole Foods development on Monroe Avenue in Brighton, New York — too much traffic and pollution, causing indelible harm to the community.
“The very things they were fighting with Whole Foods, they’re proposing, plus more, for Brown Grove,” she said. “They don’t even want congestion near their grocery stores; think about putting that congestion near the Wegmans (family’s) houses. They wouldn’t want a distribution center near where they live.”
Wegmans director DeMascole told the Washington Post: “We think we’ve done things already to the site that weren’t required, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities where we can make a difference.”
Wegmans long has been regarded as a model corporate citizen. It regularly places near the top of national lists of best places to work and has doled out millions of dollars in philanthropy, including through the Hillside Work-Scholarship Program.
“At Wegmans, we strive to make a difference in every community we serve,” Percassi wrote. “Since 1916, Wegmans has given back to every neighborhood where we do business.” 
The company’s reputation, though, has come increasingly under fire in the last few years. In March, the racial justice group Free the People ROC led a march and protest in the city of Rochester that temporarily closed the East Avenue location, Wegmans’ lone remaining store within city limits.
Leaders said the store had abandoned city residents and protested its use of uniformed Rochester police officers for security.
“Wegmans is a system that upholds white supremacy,” Free the People ROC organizer Ashley Gantt said at the time.
Morgan, of Protect Hanover, used to live in upstate New York; his wife is from Syracuse.
“I understand a lot of people have a lot of sympathy and that Wegmans is generally regarded as very good company and very good employer,” Morgan said. “We don’t necessarily have anything against Wegmans. … 
“But this isn’t Danny Wegman standing in the store in his apron looking grandfatherly. These are ruthless, cutthroat people who were hired to do a job.”
Percassi said the company has participated in numerous meetings and has gone above and beyond its legal requirements to make the project more palatable to the community. 
“It should be noted that while we plan to continue discussing community improvements with our Brown Grove neighbors, we cannot initiate conversations due to pending lawsuits,” she wrote.
The Virginia Water Control Board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both have granted permits for the project, overruling opponents’ concerns. Two legal appeals are still active and advocates are considering what other options remain.
“Look, we know Wegmans has a phenomenal reputation; their stores are one of the most amazing shopping experiences anyone could have for groceries,” said Chris French, chairman of the Hanover County NAACP’s environmental justice committee.
“We’re not against them expanding their business. The question is whether (the development) has been done in a manner that’s open and transparent. And it really is troubling because we know it doesn’t match the reputation of the store and the family itself.” 
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at jmurphy7@gannett.com
More: Why did activists target Wegmans during Daniel Prude protest?
More: Wegmans speaks out after being targeted by activists during Rochester protest

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