The Waters Increased Greatly upon the Earth

Over the past decade or so, as I traveled with my family to Sandbridge Beach, I watched in amazement, and a touch of disbelief, as large, upscale houses sprouted from the landscape that was once flat, treeless farmland.

The development was Asheville Park.  It was approved in 2004 for 499 homes on 474 acres. The construction slowed noticeably during the 2008-2010 downturn, but then picked up.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, deluging the area with rain. Asheville Park became impassable for days and homes and cars flooded. Incredibly, “All of this area was approved for rezonings without looking at stormwater,” according to Barbara Henley, a member of city council. (She was not on the council when the development was approved.) Of the 35 proffers associated with the approval, there was no mention of stormwater and how to control it. Hurricane Matthew demonstrated that the pipes and outfalls were too small and a retention lake was shallower than planned, leading to flooding.

The residents of the development have been up in arms, demanding that the city take action. After all, these were homes for which they had paid several hundred thousand dollars and being flooded was not supposed to be part of the deal. The city has come up with a long-term plan to alleviate flooding, estimated to cost $35 million. The immediate fixes will cost $11 million. The city has reached an agreement with the developer in which the approved number of houses will be reduced by 44 and the developer will donate land for the construction of a retention pond by the city. In addition to a retention pond, the work will include the construction of a gated weir and a pump station. Finally, new building permits will not be issued for the next phase of the development until specific parts of the drainage system are fixed.

There is not much else the city can do about Asheville Park. The developer still has the right to construct more than double the number of houses currently there. However, the city has obviously learned from this experience and is taking steps to take sea level rise into consideration when evaluating future developments.

In April, the city council denied an application for a 32-home development on land that was flood-prone. Potential sea-level rise was a factor in the decision. Not surprisingly, the developer sued the city in circuit court. Surprisingly, at least to me, the court sided with the city, affirming the city’s prerogative to factor in sea level rise and future flooding when deciding on whether to allow new construction, even if those projections are not established in city codes or ordinances. It is undecided whether the developer will appeal that decision to higher courts.

Virginia Beach is not content to rely solely on the courts. The city staff has drafted new development standards for future development that has not yet been approved. Those standards would require, among other things, that developers have a plan for three feet of sea level rise, more intense rainfall than is now projected, and higher groundwater levels. The proposed standards are now in the public comment stage and will ultimately have to be considered by the city council. In a comment with which Northern Virginia readers of this blog can sympathize, the city engineer heading up the project said, “We’ve set the bar pretty high. Before it’s all said and done, the council has to approve this, and there are a lot of politics that weigh into it.  The development community has a very strong word.”

The Hall-Sizemore Soapbox: As we have discussed frequently on this blog, climate change is real, even if the future effects are not entirely clear. Virginia Beach is experiencing sea level rise, which is attributed, at least partially, to climate change and the melting of polar ice and glaciers. A tangible effect will be a constraint on building in low-lying coastal areas.

As for those folks who will reside in the last two phases of Asheville Park, still to be constructed:  “They’re even lower and going to be even more problematic,” according to Council member Henley.

And the current Asheville Park residents had better hope Virginia Beach does not experience another major hurricane in the next year or so. It will take that long to get the most immediate drainage upgrades in place.

(Acknowledgement:  This posting is a distillation and summary of stories published by the Virginian Pilot over the past 12 months. The reporters were Peter Coutu, Alissa Skelton, and Mechelle Hankerson.  I acknowledge my debt to them. This is another example of the value of newspaper reporting.  The most recent article, which contains links to the prior installments, is here.)