Co-Op Withdraws Farm Proposal

Bruce Phlegar, General Manager of Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op speaks to Council.
Bruce Phlegar, General Manager of Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op speaks to Council.

by Valerie Garner

Bruce Phlegar, General Manager of the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op, said that they had listened “intently to the concerns of the citizens” of the surrounding neighborhoods” and changed their plans. In a short statement read to council members he said, “I respectfully withdraw our proposal to operate an urban farm on the 12-acre parcel for commercial urban agriculture as described in the Countryside Master Development Plan.”
The Co-op intends to search for a suitable alternative for the farm.
Earlier in the 9:00 a.m. Council briefing, Mayor Bowers read the required disclosure for closed meetings, then he told everyone assembled in the briefing room that a new development had come up for one of them. Everyone cleared the room.
The closed session was to be for the disposition of the 12-acre property located at the end of the Roanoke Regional Airport’s runway six protection zone. It was not a part of the now closed city-owned Countryside Golf Course but part of a swap deal with the airport for part of the golf course property in 2008.
The parcel sits between the Miller Court neighborhood and the Countryside neighborhood. Some residents warmed to the idea of free-range chickens but the majority did not.
Phlegar’s statement took the full Roanoke City Council chamber by surprise. Many residents of the Northwest community had “No Chickens in NW Roanoke” signs at the ready. Twelve speakers had lined up for a turn to decry the co-op’s urban farm proposal.
At Friday’s Planning Commission work session Planning Administrator, Chris Chittum said that they had tried to find alternatives for placing the 400 egg-laying chickens in another location. This would leave the eight “high hoop-tunnels” for growing vegetables off-season, a store that was to function as a packing house and education center, bee hives, a pump house and a few storage sheds.
The co-op said they needed all the elements in one place. With a stalemate and a barrage of emails from opponents of the chickens they decided to look elsewhere.
Phlegar thanked staff for their many hours of diligent work. He was grateful for the careful consideration of all the members of council.
The co-op “remains dedicated to creating a sustainable urban farm in Roanoke” and working with the city “to make the concept a reality,” he said.
The co-op had submitted its request on July 8. In a subsequent press release Phlegar said, “We are not interested in creating an entity that is a significant point of conflict with the surrounding neighborhood.”
Jacqueline Haley, daughter of Helen Davis and niece of Evelyn Bethel, presented council with 1404 signatures on a petition against the “chicken and bee” farm. Haley said to Mr. Phlegar, “that we wish you the best in your endeavors in a new location for your project.” She thanked him for withdrawing the project from Countryside.
Council member Anita Price hoped that the idea would be pursued and alternatives found. She said, “but it is delving into territory that many of us are just not ready to be participants of.” She thanked the co-op for “being respectful to the sentiments and to the concerns [of the neighborhood].”
Councilman Sherman Lea thanked the citizens for their commitment and said to the residents, “I think you see now what community involvement is all about.” He said from the first time he heard of the project he thought that, “Countryside was the wrong place.” He challenged them “to stay vigilant and stay focused.”
To some mumbling from the residents, Council member Ray Ferris said he believed that urban agriculture was the new golf course type community project. Council member Bill Bestpitch said that “we can not correct all the mistakes that have been made in the past but we can set a new course for the future in terms of transparency and in terms of encouraging and respecting citizen involvement in public processes.”
Bonnie Beckett of the Willow Walk subdivision said, “I am so excited at the outcome of our ordeal … Maybe we should become more organized to prevent it from happening again.”