A dream deferred?

Chesterfield Agrihood plan withdrawn amid accusations of discrimination

Sam Brown | 6/27/2024, 6 p.m.
The organizers of Bensley Agrihood, a planned affordable housing neighborhood built around an organic farm and wellness center in Chesterfield …
Duron Chavis explains the initial proposal June 23 at the Bensley Agrihood Service Day and Speakout. Photo by Sandra Sellars

The organizers of Bensley Agrihood, a planned affordable housing neighborhood built around an organic farm and wellness center in Chesterfield County’s Bensley neighborhood, have withdrawn their rezoning application. 

Last week, the three nonprofits backing the project — Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, Happily Natural Day and Girls For A Change pulled the proposal after nearly 600 days and four deferrals by the Planning Commission.

Leaders of the groups have cited discrimination in the zoning process as to why they withdrew the application.

“Myself and Angela Patton, director of Girls For A Change, were both refused opportunities to meet with the planning commissioner in regards to the … proffer conditions for the zoning change,” Duron Chavis, executive director at Happily Natural Day, said. “We were also asked if we were going to be growing marijuana on the farm.”

The nonprofits also were asked to list the produce they would grow, restrict the number of participating organizations in the wellness center and “significantly” limit volunteer opportunities for the farm, Chavis added.

Chesterfield County officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The Bensley Agrihood would have been built on a 7-acre site with 1.62 acres dedicated to farmland. It would have included 10 single family homes as well as four “micro-homes” adjacent to the farm, according to the Bensley Agrihood website. Chavis and Happily Natural Day are seeking other locations for Agrihood in surrounding counties and exploring legal options to accomplish the project in Chesterfield.

“We’re talking to different organizations that do pro bono work around zoning rights and property rights to find out … what legal recourse we have in regards to the handling of the zoning case in Chesterfield,” Chavis said.

Erica Sims, CEO of the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, believes the Agrihood project, which she described as a way to address housing, food access and entrepreneurship in the area, would find success at another location.

“As we worked on the project over the last few years, we heard from other government officials that they would love to see something similar in their community,” Sims said.

photo  Duron Chavis shows the proposed site of the Agrihood to volunteers and neighborhood residents.

Agrihood communities are a growing trend, with projects in 27 U.S. states and Canadian provinces as of 2018, according to an Urban Land Institute report. In Virginia, Hanover County, Loudoun County and North Garden, all have Agrihood communities, according to Agrihoodliving.com.

Chavis and Sims both expressed concern over the zoning process and would like to see zoning reform in the future.

“A lot of communities have not had enough of a say in what gets developed in their …neighborhood, and that has really damaged especially neighborhoods of color and low-income neighborhoods,” Sims said. “I want to see more transparency and more communication about how decisions are ultimately made.”