Deal concerning flooding at Ashville Park clears way for drainage fixes, continued development in subdivision

A driver braves a flooded street in Ashville Park after Hurrican Matthew in 2016. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

COURTHOUSE – About 300 homeowners in Ashville Park, a subdivision near Pungo, will be helped by taxpayer-funded fixes to a flawed drainage system that was built by the community’s initial developer and accepted by the city officials back when the “transition area” between the suburban north and rural south opened up additional to development that was meant to pay for itself.

Such development has not always gone as initially billed, and officials are now trying to make improvements in communities and land use decisions while worrying about the effects of flooding issues and sea level rise. 

In this case, officials last month said they reached an agreement so Virginia Beach can meet its  obligation to help exisiting homeowners and also allow the developer to build additional units in the subdivision. Most of the units gained zoning approval years ago, and the number of units in the community will decrease overall.

The City Council on Tuesday, July 3, voted to authorize City Manager Dave Hansen to execute an agreement with HomeFed Corporation, a California-based development company that is now developing Ashville Park. The decision, long in the making, came after the council in June sought additional options to work with the developer, and after Mayor Louis Jones suggested a tweak that eventually will lead to more water-retention storage at the development. Officials say that is needed.

The deal reached this past month would leave the city responsible for about $11.1 million to fund an initial phase of drainage improvements and clear the way for continued development, which likely will be approved next month.

However, it would mean Ashville Park ultimately would develop with fewer homes while providing the city with a portion of the land that will not be developed now for drainage needs – the Jones-engineered tradeoff that led the council to walk away from nearly $3 million the developer offered earlier to get things moving.

“Frankly, my concern is not just the current drainage issues of Ashville Park, but the future drainage issues that we’re going to have to deal with as the development continues,” Jones said during a work session at City Hall before the vote on the agreement on July 3.

Later, City Councilmember John Uhrin, who represents the Beach District, said this was one of the few times in 12 years as an elected official that he’s seen a delay pay off.

“We are going to be able to take immediate action to fix those flooding problems,” he said. “We’re going to be able to reduce the overall density of the entire project. Although we’re foregoing $2.7 million in cash, I would say the value of the land and the value of the solutions that we can actually come up with – both short term and long term – are going to far outweigh the $2.7 million in cash that we can take today.”

An earlier agreement under consideration would have cost the city $8 million for initial repairs and $3.1 million for the developer, with the city then buying an area for storm water retention, leaving the developer’s net contribution at about $2.75 million. It would have covered either 98 or 116 units for Village C, the next section to be developed in Ashville Park. As The Independent News reported earlier this year, taxpayer money set aside to pay for the Ashville Park improvements includes about $1.5 million from a city farmland preservation effort called the agricultural reserve program, or ARP.

Now the city will foot the bill itself, but the developer will provide right of way for improvements. Village C would have 116 units after the City Council approves changes requested by HomeFed, a step that will likely take place this evening, during the first meeting in August. 

However, about 40 lots in another planned village will not be built, and the land will be used by the city for storm water solutions as well as fill for city road projects. Potential development for the entire subdivision — including the roughly 300 lots already completed or near completion — will be about 455 units rather than 499 lots.

“We believe in the future this has a lot of good, long term benefits,” Deputy City Manager Tom Leahy said about the revised arrangement, noting the only downside is walking away from the developer’s money.

Some citizens, particularly on social media, have expressed concern that the city is paying for fixes the developer should fund alone, but HomeFed bought the subdivision from a bank after an initial developer, which built the flawed drainage system, went out of business amid the housing crisis. The city accepted responsibility for the existing drainage system that is being fixed.

City Councilmember Barbara Henley represents the Princess Anne District, which includes Ashville Park. During the work session, Henley said she is concerned about the effect of continued development upon neighboring areas, but the approach ultimately approved on Tuesday should help.

“I would really hope it would give us opportunities to really address what is happening to the south,” she said, also mentioning nearby roadways that are susceptible to flooding.

“It gives us options we’ve never had before,” Leahy said during the work session. “It gives us space for storage.”

That would mean less runoff and, potentially, less need to pump water from retention ponds into nearby waterways.

During the regular meeting of the council, residents of the neighborhood said they supported two options that would get work underway, including the initial offer that included money from HomeFed and the one that was adopted instead.

C.J. Pedler, an Ashville Park resident, moved into the neighborhood about 2½ years ago. He said he loves the neighborhood and the people in the community, but he said his family has lived in fear whenever it rains.

“The first year we were here, over a matter of two, three weeks, our neighborhood flooded twice,” Peddler said. “The second time, there was water that was less than an inch from getting in our house. Looking at the street, knowing there was no way out, was just a terrifying experience.”

He said some neighbors have had to get second jobs due to the expense of repairing flood damage. “I consider myself, after talking to them, lucky because I only lost a car in all of that,” Pedler said.

“We really need to move this forward,” he added. “We feel, honestly, we cannot delay this any longer. … We love Ashville Park. We love where we live. We love the area. We love the people that surround us. And we just need a resolution. We need to stop living in fear.”

Matt Tonelson, who lives in Ashville Park, said the neighborhood seeks a decision after years of discussion about how to proceed in the community.

“We need a decision tonight,” he told members of the City Council.

“This is the fourth time I’ve been up here in the past two years,” Tonelson said. “We’re hoping it’s the last. We want to save your time. We want to get back to our lives and some normalcy.”

Steve Conrad of the Back Bay Chapter of Delta Waterfowl asked the city to monitor runoff from the development, which drains into neighboring waters, and test for issues that affect water quality, including pollutants.

“I want to see that bay healthy,” he said.

Eddie Bourdon, a lawyer representing HomeFed, thanked the staff and council for the studies that showed design of the existing system was inadequate.

“I appreciate the fact that everyone is trying to move forward, as my clients are,” Bourdon said.

He requested a deferral of the land use decision until August.

“We will be back then,” he said.

“This has certainly been a while and difficult for everybody,” Henley said shortly before the vote, “but I think when we have our very best negotiator, Mr. Jones, get busy at the last minute, he came through again, and we appreciate that a lot.”

Henley noted that concerns about stormwater and flooding are bigger than Ashville Park alone.

“When we have such a big area and these things all relate to more than one thing, we really have to look at more than one thing,” Henley said.

Ashville Park is one of the subdivisions that have been developed since the introduction of a transition area between the Green Line, a city service boundary, and the rural communities of the southern city. It is intended as a buffer in which development transitions from suburban to rural with suggested development density of no more than one unit per acre.

The area represents approximately 5,887 acres, according to rough estimates provided by the city planning department. Subdivisions account for about 2,769 acres, with rural residential accounting for 318 acres and business or office uses accounting for 92 acres.

Planning officials noted that it is hard to determine what exactly future development means for the area, but they offered possible estimated development based upon soil types. About 786 are undevelopable, but there are perhaps 1,028 acres for potential developable parcels.

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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