VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The mayor and other Virginia Beach City Council members are defending their votes after again choosing to delay final action on a promise they made to voters ahead 2021 referendum on flooding.
On Tuesday, City Council voted 8-3 to send a proposed change to the comprehensive plan back to the Virginia Beach Planning Commission for at least 60 days, before they consider for at least the fourth time.
The change would require the planning department to recommend any new proposed development that generates “a net increase in water discharge demand” be denied.
The mayor and a majority of council members argue this would allow for more public input on an issue. However, others say this discussion should have occurred before the council agreed to do it back in September.
In September, City Council unanimously approved a resolution saying they would make the change within three weeks if voters approved of the city raising real estate taxes to borrow $567.5 million to fund 21 flood protection projects. The referendum passed by nearly 73%.
However, on Nov. 10, the Virginia Beach Planning Commission voted 11-0 to recommend the City Council deny adding the language, with several commissioners — who have strong ties to the development community — calling the resolution not “well thought out” and “rushed.”
City Council appoints the Planning Commission and ultimately can ignore both its recommendations on developments, as well as the recommendations from its own planning staff. Councilman John Moss, who was one of two council members who initially sponsored the resolution, said that is one reason the comprehensive plan should still move forward.
“This has nothing to do with the comp plan modification,” Moss said.
Instead, he said it has to do with developers having no relief on the stricter standards for development approved in 2020. The city at the time acknowledged the standards would make development more expensive.
Longtime Councilman Louis Jones agreed.
“Delaying that decision doesn’t accomplish anything,” Jones said ahead of the vote. “The people that are opposed to this stormwater control project don’t want to have to help pay the price for it … if you want to prevent flooding in this city, everybody is going to have to pay for it.”
Flooding poses problems for just about every part of Hampton Roads, but Virginia Beach is uniquely suited to get hit from every angle: the Atlantic pushes in from the east, the Chesapeake Bay from the north, the Elizabeth River from the west and the Currituck Sound from the south.
Council also approved its long-awaited “Sea Level Wise” plan. In 2015, the city hired Dewberry for $4 million to conduct the study to have a better idea of how much sea level rise to expect, how the city could fight back, and how much it would cost. Estimates based on scientific models indicate Virginia Beach should plan for about 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050, and 3 feet by 2080.
Moss, Jones and Councilwoman Barbara Henley were the only three who voted against sending the policy back to the Planning Commission.
“And what this sends is a message to the public is. ‘Uh, we really didn’t mean it?” Henley said.
Mayor Bobby Dyer was adamant the change will eventually be made as it was promised.
“Rest assured, we did not violate our word. The ordinance is in effect. What we are doing right now is going through a process to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Dyer said.
He added that if the Planning Commission tries to change the intent of the comprehensive plan change, the City Council’s original intent would prevail.
He said he doesn’t believe that developers were pushing back just because it would cost more.
Martha McClees, executive director of Virginia Beach Vision, agrees. Her organization supported the move to give the Planning Commission another look.
“I don’t think that is a fair characterization,” McClees said, explaining her position came out of concern of unintended consequences.
“For economic growth, for job growth, for affordable housing there are a lot of things that would be impacted that we need to make sure that whatever we do we take those things into account,” McClees said. “We are not opposed to there being language adopted, I think the timing was unfortunate.”
Councilman Linwood Branch was the only member of City Council to not vote for the resolution, as he was not on the body at the time.
“Hopefully we can get an ordinance that does all we want to do to protect stormwater, but does not give us the reputation of a place in which it’s impossible to do business,” Branch said.
Dyer encourages people to come out to the Planning Commission public hearings to have their voice be heard.
“We made a commitment, we intend to honor that commitment,” Dyer said.