It would be the 3rd-tallest building in VB: Community groups say wrong location, 3 council members recuse themselves

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — On Tuesday, City Council could approve the construction of what would become the third-tallest building in Virginia Beach. Neighborhood groups say it would be “too tall” for where developers want to put it.

Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, an upscale retirement community that sits just east of the Lynnhaven Inlet along Shore Drive, wants to expand its campus by building a 22-floor, 250-foot-tall independent living facility and parking garage and a seven-story tall assisted living facility. The buildings would be built on the current sites and parking lots of the Casa del Playa condominiums, former Lynnhaven Fish House restaurant and former Lynnhaven Fishing Pier. Elevated indoor pedestrian bridges would cross over Starfish Road and Ocean Shore Avenue to connect the new buildings to the existing complex.

In total, the project would add 340 units to Westminster’s already more than 600. Specifically, there would be 217 units in the 22-story building and 123 total units in the seven-story building divided into assisted living and memory care units.

It’s estimated to cost $250 million.

“It will be the biggest development project in Virginia Beach history (up to this point),” said Ben Unkle, CEO of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay. “Larger than the Cavalier and no public financing.”

An overview of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay’s expansion plan (Photo courtesy: City of Virginia Beach)

Unkle said the project is necessary to keep up with what he says is a “senior tsunami” — an increased need for senior housing in a market that doesn’t have it. When the plan was heard in front of the Planning Commission in March, there was a more than 500-person waiting list.

“We’re just trying to help,” Unkle said.

However, many members of the community believe what “would help” would be a smaller building.

“I don’t even know how that could be considered neighborhood feel,” said Todd Solomon, president of Shore Drive Community Coalition.

Solomon explained that there is a large concern that the building’s presence could create unnecessary shadows on the beach, obstruct views of longtime property owners and hurt property values. They also feel it could set a precedent for other developers to follow.

“I don’t know what [shore drive] would look like with 22-story towers, so dense along this area would be ridiculous,” Solomon said.

Some neighboring condominium owners have hired a lawyer to fight the project. Earlier this week Attorney Jeanne Lauer wrote a letter to city council members and the city attorney’s office arguing that the city is not allowed to approve the plan as it is because a section of city code sets the maximum height for “housing for seniors and disabled persons or handicapped” at 165 feet. She made the same claim at the planning commission.

Attorney RJ Nutter, who represents Westminster-Canterbury, responded by saying that the code had conflicting provisions when it came to the shore drive area and that ultimately “council has the ability to set the height.”

The current towers at Westminster-Canterbury’s compound are 14 stories tall. Solomon feels the community would be more receptive to the plan if the new building was capped at that height.

“Sure we could build it smaller and Westminster-Canterbury will be fine if it’s smaller,” Nutter said. “But I did the calculation and we couldn’t serve between 800 and 1,000 future seniors if we cut out those 8-floors to reduce it the same height.” 

City Council Issues

In order to accommodate an expected large number of speakers while also allowing for social distancing, the council meeting Tuesday will be held at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.

However, only 8 of the 11 member body will vote on the proposal. In an unusual move, three members recused themselves subject to the state’s conflict of interest law. Vice Mayor Jim Wood, whose district the project is in, Councilman Louis Jones and Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson all filed letters with the city clerks office in late July and early August.

Wood revealed he has an ownership interest in 2301 Urchin Road — sitting within the same block as the project — and believes the value of that property is likely to be affected depending upon the outcome of the vote.

Jones, who has owned Hollomon-Brown Funeral Home since the early 1960s, noted his business entered into a “contract for services” with Westminster-Canterbury several years ago.

Wilson’s conflict comes via her boss. Wilson works as a real estate agent for Howard Hanna whose chairman for Virginia and North Carolina Richard Thurmond. He also chairs the board for Westminster-Canterbury on the Chesapeake Bay.

Councilman John Moss has no conflict, but has already come out against the project saying “my conclusion is that the request is not compatible with the larger community land use.”

However, while the approval of the project can still be approved by majority — five council members voting yes — some of the specific plans Westminister-Canterbury has remained up the air. Specifically, the plan to relocate beach access on Ocean Shore Ave. to the east side of the Lynnhaven Fish House property.

As it is a public easement, it would require a supermajority vote in the opinion of City Attorney Mark Stiles. Meaning that 9 out of 11 council members must vote to approve it.

“That is something that council would have to take up at another time,” Stiles said, noting that Westminster-Canterbury could address the issue in their construction plans.

The meeting begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday.


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