”Zoning codes dictate the housing types that cities and suburbs allow. In mostly middle class whitw areas, they often permit only single family homes on large lots and forbid less expensive duplexes, triplexes, town homes and apartments. These exclusionary rules are not on their face racially discriminatory but are so in effect because they ban the only dwellings that many African Americans can afford.“

just action: how to challenge segregation enacted under the color of law

– Richard Rothstein & Leah Rothstein

Chesterfield’s history as a refuge for white flight from Richmond Virgina after desegregation is an underdiscussed topic in our region. Among many black people; the discourse is a popular knowledge, Chesterfield is and has been racist though the conversation usually revolves around police and traffic stops. However; the wider ramifications of the counties racism is found in dialogue about policies, systems and the elected officials that perpetuate the legacies of black and brown marginalization.

For the past 3 years we have been working to build the Bensley AgrihoodBensley Agrihood in North Chesterfield, Virginia. On the face of it, our proposal is quite simple: we would take 8 acres off of Jeff Davis/Arthur Ashe Blvd and build ten affordable homes, 4 tiny homes, a community farm and a wellness center. A development such as this has been coined an “agrihood” by contemporary urban planners, however we know that prior to the 1950s most people who did not live in the city lived in close proximity to a farm. It is only today that this is seen as an innovation.

Happily Natural Day, Girls For a Change and the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust entered into a collaboration to bring this idea to life. We approached the county and were met with seemingly welcoming arms. Our inital meetings with Jim Engle and Gib Sloan appeared favorable. The county had recently made committments to affordable housing and the need to address access to healthy food as well. I remember speaking to County officials close to a decade ago about the rising concentration of poverty in the exact area where the Bensley Agrihood would be developed. In the beginning all seemed fine.

The proposed neighborhood would require a zoning change. The parcel in question is zoned residential and to allow for the farm and the wellness center the zoning would need to change to mixed use. Such a change would require community input. We hosted dinners and lunches in the community with community members and leaders and things started to get nimby but all in all, the community was on board with it from the local elementary school, to neighbors, folks seemed excited about the farm and the homes.

Planning Commissoner Gib Sloan was not impressed. After our community meetings he repeatedly called for deferrals of our zoning application meeting. He refused to meet with the black members of the collaboration. He asked if we would illegally grow marijuana on the farm. He demanded that the farm not sell produce on site and have limited volunteer days. He demanded that the wellness center not have outside organizations using the space more than three times a month. On and on and on until it was clear that there were no circumstances upon which he would approve a zoning change.

Proving discrimination and racial bias in a zoning case is very hard to do. It is also expensive. Fortunately, we are exploring ways forward that would not require a zoning change but that work will delay the process by several months and cost several thousand more dollars to complete. This is how racism works in this type of work. The goal is to grind you down until you give up however, our generation is built different. So hold on tight yall. Its about to get rocky as we maneuver in a fight to build the Bensley Agrihood in North Chesterfield despite the legacy of systemic racism being perpetuated by the County.