The Planning Commission voted Wednesday to recommend Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s request to assume control of about 76 acres of land in the Carter’s Grove Agricultural and Forestal District.
HRSD wants to acquire the land in order to have enough space to build additional facilities at an existing water treatment plant that’s surrounded by Carter’s Grove land. The district doesn’t include the Carter’s Grove mansion and is mostly woods and wetlands.
“HRSD is in a doughnut and it is surrounded completely by the Carter’s Grove AFD,” said Robyn Hansen, an attorney for HRSD. “No matter what happens, the AFD has to be impacted here.”
The commission voted 5-2 in favor of a recommendation motion in support of the request.
That recommendation now gets passed to the Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to vote whether to approve the request March 12. Commission members Danny Schmidt and Tim O’Connor voted against the recommendation.
A utility company can acquire interests in agricultural forestal district property with the local governing body’s permission, according to Virginia State Code. The governing body has to weigh whether the acquisition is necessary to provide service to the public in the most economical and practical way, among other considerations.
Though HRSD wants the entire parcel, it expects the plant expansion would only require about 7 acres of land. Having the whole parcel would allow HRSD to operate the plant safely and have the freedom to maintain buffers around the plant, Hansen said.
“We’re going to develop as little as possible,” Hansen said.
The new facilities would allow the plant, located at at 300 Ron Springs Drive, to treat wastewater to a drinkable standard as part of HRSD’s Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow project. Currently, the plant treats wastewater and discharges it into the James River.
The SWIFT project is an HRSD effort to replenish the Potomac Aquifer, a major groundwater source for Eastern Virginia that’s been depleted through overuse by humans. By injecting treated wastewater into the aquifer, the aquifer can be refilled.
Hansen tried to make the case that the acquisition was necessary to provide service to the public — drinkable water — in the most economical and practical way.
Though Planning Commission members had some reservations about the proposal, specifically in regard to environmental impacts, most ultimately agreed the project seemed to be the best way to address water scarcity concerns related to groundwater depletion.
“The public benefit out of this thing is huge,” said commission member Frank Polster.
Carter’s Grove opposed the acquisition, and wanted the commission to recommend against HRSD’s proposal as it stands, said Tim Trant, the attorney who represented Carter’s Grove.
Trant noted HRSD needs a much smaller portion of the parcel than it requested, and that there’s a way forward that meets HRSD’s needs and Carter’s Grove’s desire to preserve the land.
“We’re interested in working with HRSD on a mutually agreeable expansion plan,” Trant said. “We believe there has been and continues to be constructive dialogue between the parties.”
The James City plant would be the first of five full-scale SWIFT operations at existing HRSD sites. The James City facility would be able to inject about 8 million gallons of drinkable water into the aquifer per day, and is expected to be built by the end of 2023. HRSD operates a research facility that’s piloting the program in Suffolk.
The parcel acquisition wouldn’t remove any of the land from the agricultural and forestal district. Nor would the land acquisition give the OK for the actual construction of the new facility. Both actions would require future legislative consideration, said James City Planning Director Paul Holt.
The agricultural and forestal district is a county land preservation designation in which James City provides tax relief in exchange for the promise that the land in question won’t be developed for a set period of time, typically four to eight years.
HRSD would be willing to put a conservation easement on land within the parcel, county planner Tori Haynes said.
The Carter’s Grove Agricultural and Forestal District was established in 2002, after the HRSD plant was constructed. The district now consists of about 316 acres.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, email@example.com, @jajacobs_