Project that would place thousands of concrete reef balls in shallow Lynnhaven River draws concern from neighbors

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — There’s a battle waging on the Lynnhaven River involving 28,000 concrete reef balls.    

Many of the vocal neighbors along the Eastern Branch of the river don’t want them, but the City of Virginia Beach, and the Army Corps of Engineers appear to be moving forward. 

The project has already been approved by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, but now some Virginia Beach councilmembers are having second thoughts, and the group of concerned residents is reaching out to 10 on Your Side to tell their side of the story. 

WAVY was first contacted by Jon Gorog, who has lived on the Eastern Branch of the Lynnhaven River 23 years. We hopped in his boat and motored into the middle of what could be 8 acres of 28,000 reef balls. 

In the middle of the river at low tide, we skim the bottom. Gorog quickly points that out.

“Right there. We just hit bottom. This river has contours, high and low, and these reef balls will be exposed for sure. I just ran aground there.” 

You have to walk out a good 30 yards to get into two feet of water at low tide. The reef balls are one-foot tall, and will sit on the river’s bottom. That means they will be just below the surface or sticking out of the water during low tide. They are designed to attract oysters, so the outside will be encrusted with sharp edges of sea life. The purpose of these artificial reefs is designed to restore cleaner water to the Lynnhaven River Basin.    

“These reef balls are going to hurt people,” Gorog said. “Someone’s going to get killed. That is what I fear.” 

Council has supported the project, but now some are having second thoughts, such as council members John Moss and Rosemary Wilson, 

“We want to make sure that we are doing the right thing before we do the wrong thing … let’s just stop, and make sure the data is right with the citizens. We need to sit down with them. We are a city that always listens to our citizens.” 

On January 28, the staff of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission could not recommend approval of the reef ball project. They gave no opinion. Concerns were raised by Justin Worrell, VMRC’s Senior Environmental Engineer, 

“We also believe the safety questions and concerns are significant, and should not be diminished. We also have concerns regarding the reef’s impact on the public use of this area,” Worrell said.   

It is a heavily traveled waterway. There is no doubt, and all sides acknowledge moving forward with the project will significantly impact water traffic in the area.  

It was also Worrell who had to admit how really shallow the water is. He told the commissioners five days before they voted for the project that they were working off wrong numbers. The water was much shallower at low tide than was believed. It actually took the residents, including Gorog, to figure it out and tell Worrell and the city about the numbers. 

Worrell is heard on tape saying to the commissioners: “The original joint permit application stated the reef will maintain 2-4 feet of water over top at mean low water. It is not possible.”   

The commission would approve the reef project permit anyway. 

10 On Your Side reached out to the VMRC for comment. Deputy Commissioner Ellen E. Bolen responded,  

“The Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s decision to approve the permit in the Lynnhaven River was informed by a robust public participation process and agency interest review.  Numerous stakeholders were contacted regarding the proposal and all comments received were entered into the public record and considered by the Commission and Commission staff. The Commission considered the permit on its merits and with the information as presented.” 

“Here is what I know,” says Doug Granger, who has lived on the river since 1983, “The project is too shallow for the balls to be put in and they will not be safe. There’s 118 properties on Dix Inlet that basically use this estuary as a recreational area for our children and our grandkids.” 

Former Virginia Beach City Manager Tom Leahy, who for years has been the point person for the city concerning the Reef Ball project, emailed:“The Lynnhaven River Estuary is a national treasure, once producing an oyster of world-wide renowned for its unique taste. The Lynnhaven provides a wide-array of recreational, commercial, and environmental benefits to all residents of the City and the Commonwealth.  However, decades of development and over-use of the estuary in the absence of any environmental controls impaired water quality to the point that oysters and other fish caught in the estuary could not be consumed, and many of the waters were not safe for swimming. Virginia Beach, the Army Corps of Engineers, the State, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Lynnhaven River NOW have partnered for 15 years to study, design, and implement projects to restore water quality and critical habitat.  Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go.  This artificial reef project is one part of a multi-pronged effort to restore wetlands and submerged aquatic vegetation, and build artificial reefs to improve water quality and increase the oyster population.” 

The city has partnered with the Army Corp of Engineers, and we interviewed spokesperson Kimberly Koelsch. We pointed out to her the residents are saying the site is too shallow, too dangerous, and is a safety issue. She admitted the shallow part of the equation,  

“It is shallow, which is consistent with the rest of the Lynnhaven. It is very a shallow tributary. We are going to be installing signage to warn people of the [reef ball] project.” 

Koelsch says the shallowest areas will not have the reef balls, and signs will be put up stating “Danger: Oyster Reef.”   

The residents argue those signs will disturb the pristine beauty of the river to which Koelsch responded,  

“We will actually be preserving the river.  We are going to be protecting this property in perpetuity instead of selling it to oyster aquaculture, cages, and other things that won’t be there now.” 

State Senator Jen Kiggans represents this area in the General Assembly: “I want to make sure if we do a project like this, we need to make sure it is not in the waterway, and it’s not where the boat traffic is. There’s other ways to do it.” 

Rudy Middleton has lived on the river 20 years, and he says the reef balls will absolutely be right in the middle of the waterway.

“There is no way around it … there will be an accident. It’s not if, but when.” 

The Virginia Beach City Council will be briefed on the current status of the project at an August 4 work session.

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