Conservation group helps preserve historic Portsmouth land


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY)- A land and waterway conservation group is adding new acres to its list of property that it’s working to conserve.

The Living River Trust was started in 2004 and works to protect open spaces near waterways.

On Tuesday, board members of the trust met with Mary W. Johnston, who owns land in Portsmouth.

The Living River Trust entered into a conservation easement with Johnston and her sister, Dr. Frances Beck, who both own the property to help preserve it for the future.

“I’m so grateful,” Johnston said. “I’m so grateful this can happen in my lifetime.”

Rob Robins, who is the chairman of the Living River Trust board, says the easement put restrictions on the property to decrease the property value so it won’t be developed.

“It has certain restrictions on it. There’s a house on it now. If it gets torn down, another can be built in similar size but you can’t change the zoning codes or build condominiums or additional dwellings on the property,” he said.

The land is five acres of the Elizabeth River and has a number of trees on the property, but the historic significance of the land is also important to the Trust and Johnston.

The first deed for the land was done in 1608 and was owned by Cornelius Lloyd, who became the first Commissioner of the Revenue for Norfolk County.

Johnston’s grandfather, Hugh Johnston, who bought the land in the 1900s, also became Commissioner of the Revenue for Norfolk County, as well as his son and Mary’s father, Hugh W. Johnston.

Johnston and her sister grew up on the land and from early on knew that she wanted to preserve it after seeing land nearby that was being developed with apartments.

“I thought there had to be another way, not that close contact living. We vowed then, I think back in the 50s, to do something later on,” she said.

Now more than 60 years later, she’s fulfilled her promise.

“I’m very happy about it and thrilled to go through this process and get it done. It really meant a lot,” she said.

Although the five acres does not seem like a lot of land to work to conserve, the Living River Trust focuses on maintaining small parcels like Johnston’s property.

“Open space is an endangered species, if that makes sense, here in Hampton Roads and urban areas. It’s important to conserve those open spaces,” Robins said.

The trust’s chairman says they’re working on conveying their message of conservation of open lands to the public and believe that 2020 has shown many how important the outdoors is for mental health.

A small parcel of land was donated to the City of Virginia Beach to serve as a small park in one neighborhood and Robins says eventually this land could be a park too for residents in Portsmouth.

“We don’t want to stop development,” he said. “But we want to make sure the citizens of Hampton Roads really know the importance of conserving open spaces and not developing every piece of it.”

The Living River Trust is currently working to preserve 80 acres of land in Chesapeake.

This land in Portsmouth is the first conservation easement they’ve had in the city.

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