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In rare agricultural land auction, large Suffolk farm near downtown lands in developer’s hands

An auctioneer with Hall and Hall starts the bidding for 383 acres of land near downtown Suffolk at the Hilton Garden Inn on May 15.
By Ryan Murphy
An auctioneer with Hall and Hall starts the bidding for 383 acres of land near downtown Suffolk at the Hilton Garden Inn on May 15.

Rural communities around Hampton Roads continue to push back against development of large farm parcels.

On a drizzly Wednesday morning in a Suffolk hotel ballroom, hundreds of acres of farmland came up for grabs.

For a local developer, it’s a great opportunity for his company in the region’s fastest growing city.

For others, the sale represents another swath of prime Suffolk farmland destined for transformation into suburban subdivisions or something similarly clad in concrete.

Charnell Blair, a widow, is moving to a different part of the state and selling off the property she and her now-deceased husband owned: 383 acres near King’s Fork High School along the Western Branch reservoir, known as Cotton Rose Farm.

The property includes the house Blair grew up in and the house the couple built in the 1970s and lived in for decades. Most of the acreage is leased to working farmers, who plant and harvest soybeans, seed cotton, wheat and corn.

After an hour of wrangling dollar figures and working out combinations of plots, a fast-talking auctioneer closed the bidding. The land was in new hands.

The 11-acre parcel that included the widow’s waterfront home sold for $1.275 million to Suffolk developer and restaurateur Bryan Mullins, who declined interviews. The other 370-plus acres went to East West Communities, another local developer, for $6 million.

Branch Lawson, president of the development company, said they didn’t know what to expect coming into the auction. This is only the second he’s been a part of since he joined the company in 1981.

“We love this area, it’s in the path of growth,” Lawson said after the close of the auction.

East West Communities has built several communities in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida, including The Riverfront at Harbor View in Suffolk and three communities in Isle of Wight. The company’s previous developments are largely luxury single-family home developments.

Lawson said they are planning to develop the Cotton Rose property, but said he didn’t want to talk specifics about their vision for the land. He said the acquisition is bigger than what they’re used to.

But not everyone was thrilled with the result of the auction.

Jim Peel has lived in a home carved out of farmland next to Cotton Rose Farm for the last decade, drawn to Suffolk for the rural feel. He went to the auction to see who would end up with the property, and was not happy it was a developer.

“When I moved here, we had one car per stoplight. Now we have 10. We don’t want to see 50,” Peel said.

Peel said he hoped Mullins, who had the high bid for the main waterfront home, would have won the whole auction. He said Mullins had plans to turn it into a hunting camp, which would have suited Peel and his neighbors better.

Suffolk is just the latest city in Hampton Roads to experience a major surge in development and population. Over the last decade, it’s been the fastest growing of the seven cities, with the expansion largely concentrated in the north of the city.

But developments like the 520-acre Port 460 warehouse project — a stones’ throw from Cotton Rose Farm — have faced protest and legal challenges from residents trying to halt that development.

Residents in southern Chesapeakeand Virginia Beach are waging the same war, attempting to ward off development from the agricultural areas of those cities. Isle of Wight, to Suffolk’s west, is bracing for the next waves of growth.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

The world changes fast.

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