Rethinking Coastal Development In Virginia Beach

Christy Everett | Hampton Roads Director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Intense storms, winds, and waves increasingly threaten waterfront homes up and down the East Coast. But many communities refuse to recognize the risk. Instead, they are kicking the can down the road and leaving the problem to our children and grandchildren.

Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems to be looking the other way. NBC News reported earlier this year that FEMA has remapped more than 500 waterfront properties from the Gulf of Alaska to Bar Harbor, Maine, “removing” them (at least on redrawn maps) from the highest-risk flood zone. That saves the owners as much as 97 percent on premiums they pay into the financially strained National Flood Insurance Program.

This remapping amounts to expanding the subsidy to the rich for building expensive waterfront properties or luxury condominiums in environmentally fragile areas. This is one issue where environmentalists and conservatives who favor small government should agree – government subsidized flood insurance wastes taxpayer’s dollars and harms local ecosystems.

Such policies seem perverse. Sometimes it takes local citizens and community groups to take matters into their own hands and find smarter, more commonsense solutions to coastal overdevelopment. Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, Va., could be a model for doing just that.

Pleasure House Point is a 118-acre peninsula of beach, marsh, and trees on the Lynnhaven River near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. One of the last undeveloped waterfront parcels in Virginia Beach, developers purchased it years ago and planned to build “Indigo Dunes,” a massive development of more than 1,000 new high-rise condos and townhouses, despite the fierce opposition of nearby neighborhoods and the City of Virginia Beach. By 2008, Indigo Dunes and its thousands of new waterfront residents, cars, and streets seemed only a matter of time.

Then the housing market collapsed, the Great Recession loomed, and building plans came to a halt. Bankers eventually foreclosed on the property and took ownership of Pleasure House Point. “Indigo Dunes” was dead, but there was a silver lining.

Seizing the opportunity, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation partnered with the City of Virginia Beach, the Trust for Public Land, and the local community in a plan to buy Pleasure House Point. This public-private coalition rallied, raised $13 million and purchased the site from the bank in 2012, preserving it for passive recreation and education.

The City of Virginia Beach quickly designated Pleasure House Point as a natural area, creating a public green space of inlets, beaches, forests, and trails that today teems with wildlife. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation bought a small corner of the property, a sandy upland of old dredge spoils, and created the Brock Environmental Center. When this innovative environmental education and community center opens in November, it will be one of the most environmentally smart buildings on the planet. Our hope is that the Brock Center will be a model of energy independence, climate change resiliency, and super-low environmental impact. In fact, it’s designed to complement the surrounding environment, not harm or fight it.

Anticipating more storms and regional flooding, The Brock Center is raised 14 feet above current sea level, leaving the landscape below natural in sand and grasses. There will be no paved parking lots; staff and visitors will park on nearby streets and walk to the center on a natural path through the woods. The limited amount of code-required handicap and emergency accesses will be surfaced with permeable pavers that let water soak in rather than run off.

Permeable pavers and natural, “soft” landscaping make the Brock Center akin to a giant sponge, absorbing rainfall and storm surges and allowing flood waters to spread and recede naturally without harm to the center or nearby neighborhoods.

At Pleasure House Point, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Beach community offer a simple formula for coastal communities around the nation: work with nature rather than against it by preserving open space, wetlands, and forests; use renewables for energy and water independence; and seek out salvaged materials and new technology to create an environmentally smart development. In other words, the story of Pleasant House Point is a great example for what to do, and not to do, along sensitive, increasingly threatened coastal areas across the country.

Christy Everett is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Hampton Roads Director where she works to improve water quality of area waterways that feed into Chesapeake Bay.

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