PUNGO — Developers including Bill DeSteph, a state senator and former member of the city council, have plans for land on either side of Princess Anne Road near the Pungo stoplight that could bring more than 100 new homes and some commercial development to an area at the rural village’s center.
DeSteph and some officials familiar with discussions about the development, which has been known as Pungo Ridge but has no official name yet, said it is in its early stages. Oceanside Building LLC, which has developed projects that include Ashby’s Bridge along Sandbridge Road, is involved.
No formal plans have been presented to city officials, but there have been conversations and some correspondence. The project would require rezonings for agricultural properties, and there would be review processes with city staff, the planning commission and the city council, if it goes forward. Some city officials who have been briefed on the development said they have concerns about commercial aspects and the housing density that may be sought.
Land being discussed for development includes agriculturally-zoned property at Back Bay Farms to the west and the old Pungo airfield to the east of the road, and it could include an undeveloped commercial spot at the corner of Indian River and Princess Anne roads. A call to Pungo Airport, LLC, rang through to Abacus of Hampton Roads, which referred questions to DeSteph. Gene Hansen, the owner of Back Bay Farms, did not return a call.
“If those key properties are developed, certainly that changes the face of Pungo,” said City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District.
Laura Zito, project coordinator for the development, said the mixed-use development aims to create a community built around the farm-to-table concept, a sort of development sometimes called an “agrihood.” In an interview on Wednesday, July 5, Zito and DeSteph said they are committed to a quality community that celebrates Pungo, and they said there will be meetings with members of the public about plans when the project is further along.
“This is what Pungo really needs, and I believe this is what we really want for the transition to Pungo,” DeSteph said, adding that the farm-to-table approach is a “perfect” fit.
They also are aware about sensitivities regarding the rural hub and developments within the greater transition area. Concepts for communal areas within the development show, among other things, kid-sized representations of Pungo businesses such as the Pungo Board House. There would be amenities such as paths and a focus on making a walkable community. Commercial use would include a focus on history and seek local businesses, Zito said.
DeSteph said plans under consideration would help solve flooding problems at Ashville Park by using a “living lake” concept at the airfield side and fostering drainage westward, which he said is now being constrained by the elevation of Princess Anne Road. Drainage would go through the Back Bay Farms side toward wooded open space.
“I think there’s a concept here that a lot of communities would embrace,” Zito said.
“This is a type of community that is different than what we have in Virginia Beach,” DeSteph said during the interview.
Zito added, “I believe in creating not just a neighborhood but a community.”
The properties, totaling about 120 acres, are in the so-called transition area, a zone intended as a buffer between the city’s suburban north and rural south. That area recently has been at the heart of concerns about flooding in the Ashville Park and Sherwood Lakes subdivisions. City officials recently have taken steps to address inadequate drainage in those neighborhoods and to seek ways to limit development in the transition area due largely to drainage concerns.
As The Independent News reported on Friday, May 26, a proposed effort to study and define Pungo in planning terms is on hold.
New commercial uses included in discussions of the potential development certainly would affect the village area, already experiencing traffic and pedestrian issues near where the two-lane Princess Anne and Indian River roads intersect.
While some locals call this crossroads “downtown” in jest, Pungo is a small commercial hub, a centerpiece of rural life and a place that feels the impact of traffic between the suburban city and communities from Pungo down to Knotts Island, N.C.
Discussion of the development also comes as the Transition Area/Interfacility Traffic Area Citizens Advisory Committee has discussed with city leaders a desire to step back and consider how development in the transition area should be completed. There are approximately 600 acres left in the area that could be developed, officials said.
“It really is a pivotal moment for the transition area and how its going to finish out – and how Pungo’s going to look,” said Linwood Branch, the committee chairperson and a former member of the Virginia Beach City Council, during an interview on Monday, July 3.
“Pungo is a special place to a lot of people in this city, a very unique place,” Branch said. “It’s the gateway to the rural section of the city. To the decision makers, we are recommending to them that they get briefed, get public input and convey the vision of how we’re going to finish.”
Dr. Karen Beardslee Kwasny, who represents the Princess Anne District on the planning commission, said the development idea speaks to a wider concern for projects near Pungo.
“Unfortunately, Pungo as we know it, nebulous as it is, has that line running through it’s intersection,” Kwasny said on Monday, July 3. “One side is transition area, one side rural area.”
Kwasny said she has reservations about the development as it was presented to the committee, of which she is a member. Defining what Pungo is and should be is a priority, she added. “We need to get to Pungo before somebody else gets to it – i.e., a developer. … We are allowing it to become something that someone else wants it to be.”
Members of the committee said DeSteph and others, including Zito, discussed the plan and sought input and concerns. The development team provided some written materials describing concepts, though they asked that those papers be returned to them.
Some materials describing the proposal said the development “harmonizes with Pungo” and will “surround homes with a working farm that feeds the community and nourishes a healthy and sustainable way of life.” Homes would range from six to three bedrooms and be either two stories or bungalows. During an interview, Zito said houses would be single-family residences at a range of price points to appeal to a variety of buyers.
Members of the committee said they expressed concerns to the developers about the amount of commercial development included in the plan, as well as the possible density of the development and whether it was in keeping with current guidelines for the transition area. “We are taking it into consideration,” Zito said regarding the feedback.
Some members also asked questions about a farm-to-table concept, which might link an agricultural area preserved within the development with commercial uses, such as a farmers market or a restaurant. Zito said the goal would be to engage residents in the agricultural area and find ways to bring food grown in the community to commercial uses. It would start small, she noted, and potentially grow as similar efforts have. There might also be partnerships with Virginia Beach farms.
Robert White Jr., who farms land near the possible development and is a member of the transition area committee, said developers discussed getting a farmer to work some land within the development, though it seemed like a very small area. He was also concerned with proposed commercial development and said some lot sizes seemed small.
“We pretty much recommended that it’s not going to fly as it is,” he said.
As did other committee members, he stressed that they were given preliminary information about the project.
“It was more of a notice they were looking at developing this parcel,” Branch said. “It seemed like there was a lot of sort of trying to find out what the committee was looking for as well as the citizenry.”
In the transition area, he said, drainage concerns could add cost to development plans and mean developers seek more density than the committee might want.
The city is looking at drainage in its watersheds, and Henley said she hopes to have that information when considering proposals in the transition area.
“I’m really reluctant to approve new plans until we’re pretty daggone sure we don’t have people buying houses, and then they realize they have a drainage problem,” she said.
Members of the committee said the developer may build greater-than-needed capacity for runoff to help nearby Ashville Park, as DeSteph said this past week. Developers might seek greater density in exchange.
Generally, density can be up to a unit per acre of developable land in the area. The transition area is not meant to be a continuance of suburban development patterns, but a true transition to the rural section, Branch said.
“We didn’t want one side of the road with full development and the other side of a road to be a rural pasture,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot of us on the committee who thought this was more development than needed to be here,” said Dr. William Brown, a member of the committee. “This is farther south than where the infrastructure runs. … It didn’t seem to be that it was transitioning.”
Members of the committee said they await additional information about the proposed development.
The committee also wants city leaders to have a full picture of issues in the transition area, including a look at how the transition area is developed and its goals.
“Our committee chose to recommend to the city council that the council and the planning council really get a full briefing on the intent of what the transition area was supposed to be,” Branch said. “You’ve got council members that probably aren’t as up on the original vision and the promises that were made. … This is a pivotal moment for the council and the planning commission to determine the way they want to go.”
He also said the city should engage the public about issues in the transition area as it considers wider issues.
“Our committee is just saying step back,” he said. “Don’t finish this on a project-by-project basis. Look at the big picture. Frankly, it would be good to hear from the public on this.”
The commission meets at 5 p.m., the first Thursday of each month, in Building 19 at the municipal center in Courthouse. Meetings are open to members of the public.
Henley said the city should consider how developments approaching the rural area itself lead into it.
“Are we really making that transition or is the intent to bring that suburban area right up to the rural?” she said.
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