Wegmans — and lawsuits — move forward in Hanover
Rochester, New York-based supermarket chain Wegmans Food Markets Inc. is building a $175 million distribution center and regional headquarters near the intersection of Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads in Hanover County. The 1.1 million-square-foot facility is expected to create roughly 700 jobs, making it one of the most significant economic development projects in county history.
However, not everybody is excited about the supermarket’s new site, and the project has faced pushback since it was announced in 2019.
Wegmans’ facility is one of several warehouse and distribution centers underway in Hanover — a trend that has county economic development officials thrilled over new jobs and major corporate investments.
But residents of Brown Grove, the historically Black community in Hanover where the facility will be located, are leading the resistance to the project, which they contend will disturb cemetery land and is just the latest in a long string of disruptive development projects around their neighborhood.
While two ongoing legal challenges — including one by the Hanover NAACP — navigate through the courts, Wegmans has secured the permits necessary to begin preparing the site, and county officials estimate that the facility could be completed within the next two years.
Brown Grove traces its origins to Caroline Dobson Morris, who was born into slavery and emancipated after the Civil War. Residents there have watched as the surrounding land has been transformed — first by Interstate 95 and then by concrete plants, landfills, a municipal airport and, soon, the grocery distribution center.
“This facility is planned to be the size of the Pentagon and it is being dropped right in the midst of the historic African American community,” says Hanover NAACP President Patricia Hunter-Jordan. “It’s right across the road from a 150-year-old church, which has been the center of the community.”
Wegmans representatives did not return calls seeking comment, but Hanover Director of Economic Development Linwood Thomas IV says the grocery chain wants to work with Brown Grove.
“[Wegmans will] continue to work with the surrounding communities, including the Brown Grove community, to look for ways to partner with them,” Thomas says. “They want to be good community partners.”
While Wegmans has begun clearing land, pending court cases could impact the site’s future.
Five neighbors of the future distribution facility filed suit against the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, the former property owners and Wegmans, challenging the board’s decision to offer Wegmans proffered conditions on the site — including allowing graves to be moved.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in August, on the grounds that the neighbors do not have standing in the case. Shortly after that ruling, Wegmans purchased the site for $4 million and announced plans to begin construction. The neighbors appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, and if it decides to hear their case, it will be ruling only on whether or not neighbors have standing.
Meanwhile, the Hanover NAACP and a group of residents have filed a second lawsuit against Wegmans, the state and the Department of Environmental Quality alleging that the State Water Control Board did not choose the least environmentally damaging alternative for the Wegmans site, says Brian Buniva, the attorney representing plaintiffs in both cases. The suit also alleges that the DEQ did not thoroughly vet the application that Wegmans submitted and allowed the grocer to dramatically underestimate the amount of wetlands that would be impacted by the project.
“Corners were cut for Wegmans that nobody else in the commonwealth gets,” says Chris French, the environmental justice chair for NAACP’s Hanover branch. “That should get everybody’s attention. The rules of a farmer who wants to create a pond will be held up much more strictly than a corporation like Wegmans.”
Opponents to the development also say that building on the site would unearth graves of their ancestors, although searches conducted by both community members and consultants hired by Wegmans have failed to find definitive evidence of graves.
One of the proffered conditions that county supervisors approved in 2020 changed a requirement to leave any gravesites undisturbed. Instead, the property owners can relocate graves.
“Any graves that are discovered (and which are in conflict with the approved plan or the necessary improvements) have to be treated with respect and must be appropriately relocated as required by state regulations,” Hanover County Attorney Dennis A. Walter wrote in an email.
As the legal wrangling continues, county officials are confident Wegmans and regulatory agencies followed the necessary steps.
“This was analyzed with a fine-tooth comb,” Thomas says. “It has been reviewed. We don’t look at these lawsuits lightly.”