Goochland neighbors express concerns about future COVID memorial

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Wednesday morning on the site of a former Goochland County golf course that a Richmond non-profit plans to turn into a memorial for victims of COVID-19.

“‘Gardens of Tranquility’ is a place where healing begins,” said Dr. Arlene Simmons, referring to the name for the planned memorial. “Whether it is mental, emotional, physical, spiritual or educational. We want this to be a place of peace and tranquility.

Simmons is the founder of Humanitarian Ambassadors of America Community Development Corp., a non-profit with 25 years in Richmond, and said they purchased the land earlier this year and was inspired to turn it into a COVID-19 memorial by children she worked with who told her about what they experienced during COVID-19.

“They chronicled hardships related to the loss of housing, death of loved ones, health issues, depression, hunger, and other challenges experienced because of the COVID pandemic,” Simmons told the crowd. “In the pain of their grief these young minds decided it was not only important, but necessary to remember loved ones and an honorable and permanent way.”

Simmons said the plan is to redevelop the 151-acres in four phases with a $33-million budget. The COVID-19 victims will be remembered in rock gardens and memorial walls, but Simmons said they also intend to include memorials for people who have passed from other health issues and kids lost to gun violence.

“The design will feature and will extend to programmatic opportunities geared toward positive youth development processes,” added Simmons, who said this could include things like a par 3 golf course, gardening, and hiking. “It’s a challenge if you’ve never been exposed to it but it’s happiness when you are exposed to it,” Simmons said.

However, anyone attending Wednesday’s ceremony would have had to drive past dozens of yards signs along the only road leading to the site expressing concern or skepticism about the project.

CBS 6 spoke with some of the homeowners who put up the signs and they said while the project seems to have good intentions, they raised concerns about the amount of traffic it could bring in, the ability to maintain upkeep of the property, and said that they have not been included in conversations about proposed plans.

Simmons said they did not have to have those conversations because the property is not a part of the homeowner’s association and said nothing they are planning to build would be outside of the property’s current zoning.

“It’s a rural area, everything is beautiful here. And so we don’t want anything to change, we just want to blend in,” Simmons said.

However, Simmons said when they begin designing the first phase next month, they will keep the county updated on what they do and she said the neighbors will have a seat at the table.

“We want them to welcome us and we welcome them to be here,” Simmons said.

Simmons said they hope to have at least finished renovating the clubhouse and built one memorial garden and a wall for a ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in December.

CBS 6 also reached out to Goochland County and asked about the proposal and received a written statement.

“County staff has met with representatives from the Humanitarian Ambassadors of America Community Development Corporation who are proposing the COVID memorial garden at the former Royal Virginian golf course. Their representatives provided several potential future uses for the site, but no formal land use request has been made and nor has zoning approval been applied for or given. It is too early to say what may be required until staff is provided additional information,” wrote Community Affairs Manager Paul Drumwright. “If a zoning application is filed, community meetings and public hearings are required where citizens can voice their opinions about the request.”

“Goochland County encourages all potential applicants and new businesses and organizations to create an open dialogue and engage with the greater community as they move forward on proposed plans and developments,” he added.

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