IW residents oppose Suffolk ‘borrow pit’

Published 6:24 pm Friday, April 1, 2022

A group of residents living near Isle of Wight County’s border with Suffolk made their presence known during the public comment period at Isle of Wight’s March 22 Planning Commission meeting.

Their issue: a proposed “borrow pit” on the Suffolk side whose developer plans to use their street as an access road.

Borrow pits, as the mining operations are known, facilitate the extraction of sand from the ground. According to the Virginia Department of Energy, most of the sand and gravel produced in Virginia is extracted from surface pits in the state’s coastal areas. Sand and gravel form natural aggregate, a main component in concrete and asphalt.

According to Alexis Baker, comprehensive planning manager for the city of Suffolk, the project entails the creation of two new pits — one 27 acres and the other 12 acres. Its developer, Ryan Nelms of Ryan Material Inc., has requested a conditional use permit from the city on behalf of the landowners, Frederick and Lugayle Upchurch.

Nelms plans to use Shady Pine Lane, a narrow residential road on Isle of Wight’s side of the border, as the site’s legal ingress and egress easement. But because the pits themselves would be located on the Suffolk side, Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have no say in whether the requested permit is granted.

“We’re talking around at least 80 trucks a day …The fear is that a school bus is eventually going to get run off this road, and it’s going to be an Isle of Wight school bus, not a Suffolk school bus,” said Shady Pine Lane resident Shane Wilson.

Shady Pine Lane is a one-lane private gravel road with no through access. School buses don’t use it, but do routinely travel on its paved connector road, Longwood Drive. Robert Black of Longview Drive told the commissioners he’d measured the paved section of his street at just over 17 feet wide.

“When two trucks need to get by each other, there’s not going to be the clearance to do it,” Black said.

“I was thinking about selling my house, but who’s going to buy it with a sand pit?” asked Betty Wainwright, another Shady Pine Lane resident.

According to the site plan submitted to Suffolk’s planning office, trucks would access the pit via an easement granted by Marvin Spivey. Spivey, speaking to The Smithfield Times by phone, said he’d granted the easement about 10 years ago when the Upchurches planned to open a campground on the land now slated for the two borrow pits.

“It’s put me in a bad position, but I’m not going to oppose it,” Spivey said.

The reason he plans not to oppose the proposed pit is because he himself once had a borrow pit. His pit was permitted for up to 80 trucks per day, which is why Wilson is estimating the same volume of traffic for the Upchurch project.

When the Upchurches had planned to open a campground, “They were estimating 100 cars and trucks a day to come in and out of there,” Wilson recalls. But the project was deemed unsafe for that much traffic.

“We’re worried about our wells too because some years ago (Isle of Wight County) had to come replace our well pumps and lower them deeper because of all the sand pits in the area,” Wilson said, speaking to the Times March 25. “People’s wells were going dry.”

According to Tarah Kesterson, a Virginia Department of Energy spokeswoman, sand mining in Isle of Wight County is usually in the shallow deposits zero to 25 feet below the ground surface.

“Generally, for this type of mining to affect local wells, several factors have to be in place,” she said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, some borrow pits extend below the water table and require pit operators to pump the excess water out of the pit, which can impact groundwater levels. Shallow wells that obtain water from very fine sand, silt or clay can go dry if the water table drops below the well bottom.

Suffolk’s Planning Commission was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed borrow pit March 15, but pulled the item from its agenda. The earliest the matter will go back before the commission is April 19.

“We have been in communication with Isle of Wight County, and there does not appear to be a need for a use permit in their locality,” said Kevin Wyne, Suffolk’s interim director of planning.

Nelms did not respond by press deadline to a request for comment.

Isle of Wight’s commissioners discussed sending a letter to their counterparts in Suffolk, but conceded anything beyond that would be out of their hands.