Zoned Out

Amid accusations of racial discrimination, Bensley Agrihood dies in Chesterfield.

Proponents of a unique development that would have merged affordable housing with a working farm have withdrawn their rezoning application and halted the project, charging racial discrimination on the part of Chesterfield county officials.

“We are still very interested in this concept, and doing it in other locations,” says Erica Sims, CEO of the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT), the developer for Bensley Agrihood, which would have featured low-cost homes, a farm and an education and wellness center. “This project was one that really interested funders, and raised well over a million dollars and we’re now in the process of returning that money.”

The project had the support of more than a dozen area colleges and nonprofits, and was even the recipient of several big grants, including a $700,000 affordable housing grant last year from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

What went wrong?

“I think it’s because of who was pushing for this,” says Duron Chavis, director of Happily Natural Day, which promotes holistic health, culture and social change in the Black community, and manages several community gardens across the region. “The fact that you had two Black organizations working with Maggie Walker … it was a little too Black for [Planning Commissioner] Gib Sloan and [Bermuda District Supervisor] Jim Ingle to stomach. If it was a white developer that just showed up and wanted to do this, and there wasn’t an affordable housing component, there would have been no problem.”

Maggie Walker and Happily Natural Day are two of the three nonprofit groups who joined to spearhead the proposed farm/housing hybrid – which Style Weekly recently touted as the area’s “Best Affordable Housing Experiment” in our Best-Of issue. The other is the youth empowerment organization, Girls For a Change (GFAC), which was offered the project land in the Bensley suburb of Chesterfield by a supporter, Marcia Woodley.

Duron Chavis, director of Happily Natural Day and manager of several community gardens, at Sankofa Community Orchard. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The groups withdrew their rezoning application from the Chesterfield County Planning Commission’s docket earlier this month. According to a press statement from Sims, “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 [Black, Indigenous and people of color] land ownership.”

The critical, accusatory statement was unusual for the normally apolitical MWCLT, which is currently working as a land bank for Chesterfield on another low-income housing project, Ettrick Landing, in South Chesterfield.

Sims says that the Bensley rezoning included instances of 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.” The officials also wanted a list of proposed produce to be grown on the site, and kept limiting both the number of volunteers that could work on the farm and the use of the education center to outside organizations. They also told the planners, with no reason given, that they couldn’t keep chickens on the farm. “Consequently, the case was deferred four times by the Planning Commissioner, even though county staff recommended project approval each time,” says Sims.

In a statement published on the Girls For a Change website, CEO Angela Patton wrote: “We at Girls For A Change are deeply disheartened by the consistent roadblocks we have faced in advancing our community through the Bensley Agrihood project. Despite our extensive efforts to transform an empty lot into a vibrant community asset in partnership with local residents, we have encountered significant resistance. This resistance is particularly troubling as it targets the leadership of two Black leaders deeply rooted in the Richmond Tri-City area.”

Chavis says that the county’s questions and demands were often racially charged, and the goal posts keep moving. “They were concerned that we were going to grow marijuana on the site. It was one of the first weird-ass questions that came from the planning commissioner’s office … a disrespectful question to ask legitimate nonprofit organizations. Not only that, it wasn’t a question ever asked of other people farming in the county.”

“The staff at the county was surprised that we were asked about [cannabis] because it wasn’t something that was ever done before,” Sims adds. “We replied and said that it’s illegal to grow marijuana in Virginia so that isn’t something we should be asked to proffer. When we are told to proffer something that isn’t even legal, it causes us to wonder, ‘Why are we being asked this?’ What is unique about our project that would cause the county, after these several deferrals, to ask things like this?”

Jim Ingle and Gib Sloan were not available for comment. Instead, Chesterfield Public Information Officer J. Elias O’Neal forwarded a statement on behalf of the county and the two officials. “We disagree with the recent statement posted to the MWCLT website,” it reads. “As with all rezoning requests, there is a standard process that requires a variety of steps be taken before a project can be approved. Sometimes, the process ends with applications being withdrawn by the applicant.”

Seeded by a $200,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 7-acre Bensley Agrihood would have merged a working, 1.5-acre farm with low cost housing, an unusual pairing that proponents said addressed both Chesterfield’s lack of affordable housing as well as the region’s food insecurity. The $4.5 million dollar development planned as many as 10 two-and-three-bedroom homes in the 1,200-1,500-square-foot range (plus four 800-foot “tiny homes”) that would have been offered to eligible first-time buyers at lower-than-market prices. The accompanying farm was slated to grow food available to residents, the neighborhood and through farm shares, and the education and wellness center was earmarked for community events overseen by Girls For a Change.

In the three years that the three groups were navigating the land’s rezoning status, the project managers met several times with local residents and neighbors. While there were a few who had reservations, “which always happens with a new development,” Sims says, most were excited and positive. “The main concern was over potential noise … they didn’t want loud music on the farm,” says Chavis. “We were like, ‘we’re not trying to bring Bonaroo to this neighborhood, we want to teach people how to farm.’ So there was nothing unreasonable from the neighbors and we agreed.”

Chavis, who is weighing potential legal action against the county, says that Happily Natural Day is forging ahead with landowner Woodley’s blessing. “We are still going to develop the farm with a bigger eye on developing the agrihood in the future. Maggie Walker may not be involved because they are exhausted. But this deserves to happen and it’s a shame that these elected leaders don’t see that.”

[Correction: In one of the quotes, Jim Ingle’s name was misspelled.]

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