HANOVER, Va. (WRIC) — Hanover residents who sued over the county’s approval of a Wegmans distribution center can move forward with their lawsuit after the Virginia Supreme Court overruled a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit was filed by five homeowners with property near the 1.7 million square foot center, which is still under construction and expected to open this summer, who challenged the county Board of Supervisors’ 2020 approval of the project’s rezoning and special-use permits.
A Hanover County Circuit Court judge sided with the county, throwing out the case after ruling the plaintiffs failed to establish legal standing to sue or show how the construction of the facility impacted them more than others.
That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which issued an opinion on Feb. 2 finding the circuit court was wrong to rule the homeowners did not bring forward claims that provided a “sufficient factual basis” for standing.
“Standing determines who may file a lawsuit — not who can win one. Winning and losing depends on judicial factfinding and discretion,” Justice D. Arthur Kelsey wrote.
Virginia’s Supreme Court did not weigh in on the merits of the claims, instead focusing on the circuit court’s ruling to throw the case out for lack of standing.
The justices found that the plaintiffs presented “a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the Board’s 2020 decision and specific, detailed harm to the homeowners.”
In a statement Friday, Hanover County said its Board of Supervisors and county attorney’s office are reviewing the decision.
“While we disagree with the Court’s decision, the Board respects the court’s role in the process,” the statement reads. “The Board is reviewing its options but remains confident that, as the courts continue their review of this matter, they will find that the Board acted properly related to this case.”
The residents allege the board violated several rules when signing off on the permits, including then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order limiting public gatherings, requirements to hold hearings “at which persons affected may appear and present their views” and multiple county ordinances.
The plaintiffs also allege the project has and will lead to several issues where they live, including traffic and environmental concerns.
For example, the lawsuit claims the 24-hour, 365-days-a-year operation of the facility will lead to 860 tractor-trailers traveling near their homes each day, increase flooding on one of the plaintiff’s properties and will reduce property values.
Brian L. Buniva, the homeowners’ attorney, said the Supreme Court “blessed” the plaintiffs to finally try the merits of the case in court. He told 8News on Friday that Wegmans could be blocked from operating the distribution center if the circuit court voids the zoning permit.
Negotiations of a potential resolution took place last year but Wegmans cut them off, Buniva told 8News. Buniva said they are preparing for the case to be heard, but also to find ways to make the situation more “palatable.”
Northam announced Wegmans’ plans to build the $175 million facility, located near Sliding Hill and Ashcake roads in Ashland, in 2019, adding that the grocery retailer’s warehouse would create 700 new jobs in the area.