Public Statement on Chesterfield Zoning Case 23SN0043 in the Bermuda District – The Bensley Agrihood

On June 5, 2024, the nonprofits behind the envisioned Bensley Agrihood withdrew their rezoning application from the Chesterfield County Planning Commission’s docket because it became clear—after 583 days—that the project would not receive rezoning approval due to a continuing legacy of zoning processes being used to discriminate against BIPOC land ownership.  Accordingly, the project will not move forward in its current form, and the estimated $6.5M investment in affordable housing, education, job training, and community farming will be a loss for the community.

In April 2019, the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT) was “designated to carry out the functions of a land bank entity for the purpose of assisting the county address vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties in the county.” (Chesterfield County Part II – The Code, Chapter 5 – Buildings, Sec. 5-8). The priorities for the land bank in the same sections of the Code include, but are not limited to, “the production of affordable and workforce housing units”, “encouraging the development and reuse of vacant and surplus properties” and “preserve and enhance open space and urban agriculture opportunities.”

In 2022, MWCLT came together with Girls For A Change (GFAC) and Happily Natural Day (HND), all with proven past success in the region, when the owner of the vacant property at 2600 Swineford Road offered to sell the parcel to them. An idea to develop an agrihood, a residential neighborhood built around an organic working farm and that addresses housing, food access and entrepreneurship, was born: the Bensley Agrihood. Balzer and Associates was hired as the engineer of the project in September 2022 and the project team was formed including the three nonprofits and Balzer.

The Bensley Agrihood exemplifies MWCLT’s land bank role in transforming a vacant property into a community-driven development opportunity. Community engagement and input are paramount in any rezoning process and even more so for these three nonprofit partners given their missions all centering equity. Six community meetings were held in late 2022 and early 2023 as well as dozens of one-on-one meetings and conversations with community leaders and neighbors. Almost monthly in 2023 and 2024, the project team held on-site community events aimed at cleaning up and clearing the site for farming and other future uses. The project evolved over this time from community input. The valid concerns of the community were addressed through changes to the design and program; much of the community supports this project; and the county staff has recommended it to the Planning Commission for approval.

Despite the community engagement, adjustments to address community concerns, and alignment of the project’s goals with the Chesterfield Code, zoning was used, as it has been historically, to attempt to enact covenants and arbitrary requirements that limit BIPOC land ownership and use. Our experience included instances of both elected and appointed officials in the Bermuda district refusing to meet with the Black leaders of GFAC and HND despite their expertise in urban farming and community programming, questions about illegal substances being grown on the site, a request for a detailed list for approval of produce to be grown on the site and repeated requests to further limit the use of the education center to outside organizations in each revision of the application. Consequently, the case was deferred four times by the Planning Commissioner, even though County staff recommended project approval each time.

The project team was not willing to comply with the most recent requested conditions, which included replacing the farm with a community garden with a limited number of volunteer days for garden maintenance and limiting the use of the education center for small events to two times per month, making it nearly impossible for these amenities to be successful for the nonprofit organizations operating them. The project team has consistently displayed willingness to incorporate feedback from various stakeholders only to be met with continued demands that move the project outside of its intended purpose.

MWCLT remains committed to fostering racially equitable communities. We were not able to fulfill that commitment with this project and ultimately, this is most unfortunate for the community, which would have gained a unique and valuable asset for Bensley and the Route One corridor.

Questions may be directed to Erica Sims, CEO: