The Northumberland County, Va., Board of Supervisors continues to ponder whether to grant a zoning exception to a land developer to build a massive 898-acre residential/commercial project at Bluff Point on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
A few weeks ago local officials heard yet another reason why they should reject the project: expected sea-level rise and storm surges in the coming decades will make the place expensive to maintain, uninsurable, and ultimately uninhabitable.
That was the message from Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk nonprofit dedicated to the protection and conservation of Virginia’s wetlands and a reliable source of information on sea level rise and its implications for Virginia localities.
At an Oct. 13 Northumberland Board of Supervisors meeting, Wetlands Watch Assistant Director Shereen Hughes summarized the organizations concerns, sent earlier in a formal comment letter, and urged the county to deny the developer’s request for a Bluff Point zoning variance.
Developer Tom Dingledine has asked for approval to build 530 single and multi-family homes, a 90-room resort hotel and spa, 34,000 square feet of commercial shops, restaurants, artificial lakes, a new marina with 98 slips, and dry storage for 130 boats on a waterfront tract, much of which is designated as a conservation area by the county’s master plan. That means the parcel, composed of upland forests, wetlands, tidal marshes, and beaches jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, has been deemed too environmentally valuable to be developed.
Hughes pointed out that nearly all of the proposed development is located in a category 1 storm surge zone and faces the threat of flooding from sea level rise and storm surges, now and increasingly in the future. That translates into frequent high water, greater threats to public health and safety, ever more expensive road, sewer, and other infrastructure maintenance, increasing difficulty getting property insurance (if available at all), and a growing burden on Northumberland taxpayers.
According to a Wetlands Watch’s website blog:
This proposal makes no sense today and becomes increasingly dangerous from a fiscal and safety standpoint as sea level continues to rise. It is both bad for the environment and the taxpayer's wallet.
This proposal is a 'poster child' for wrong-headed ideas along Virginia's shoreline: putting hundreds of people, a $40 million hotel, a marina, and 34,000 square feet of store space at the end of a long, low, road in a region experiencing one of the highest rates of sea level rise on the East Coast (1.6 feet/century at the Lewisetta tide gauge).
Private sector insurance is disappearing from areas like this - upwards of 1/2 of the private insurance market has stopped writing new policies along Virginia's Chesapeake Bay shoreline. The National Flood Insurance Program is $18 billion in debt (before this summer's flooding), and reforms being proposed will raise premiums, increase deductibles, or both.
Sea level rise makes new shoreline development increasingly risky - both financially and personally risky. And these developments increase the costs to the rest of us, in higher insurance premiums/loss of insurance coverage and more taxpayer subsidies to the flood insurance program.
And that’s in addition to the likely environmental impacts the proposed development will have. As Wetland Watch’s comment letter concluded, “The estuarine ecosystem at Bluff Point is unique and one that is increasingly threatened along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Keeping existing beach and tidal wetland ecosystems intact becomes critical in coming years as more of these ecosystems fall prey to development and sea level rise…
“The highest use of this land for the citizens of Northumberland and the Commonwealth of Virginia is to keep the Bluff Point parcel in conservation. Nothing can be done about the prior land use decisions on the rest of the proposed development, but following a bad decision with a worse one makes little sense.”
These and other issues also have been raised by many Northumberland residents, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and others. As in the past, dozens of citizens showed up at the recent board meeting to underscore their concerns. The board was told a petition circulated across the county has collected a thousand or more signatures opposing the project.
The board took no action at the meeting and declined to establish any kind of schedule to let citizens know when a vote on Bluff Point might occur. That left many residents frustrated and angry, according to a local newspaper report headlined, “Bluff Point Waiting Game.”
What do you think about Bluff Point? Should the county grant the exception and allow the development to proceed? Do you agree with Wetlands Watch that sea level rise alone poses too many risks for the project to be built? If you were on the county board, what would you do?
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
[Top photo from Wetlands Watch]