‘A natural thing’

Published 9:31 pm Saturday, July 30, 2011

Urban North Suffolk grew out of fertile farmland

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories on the history of North Suffolk. Look for the rest of the series in upcoming Sunday editions of the Suffolk News-Herald.

Before it merged with the city of Suffolk in 1974, Nansemond County was more than 420 square miles of farmland with no stoplights and few utilities.

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Still, the allure of the land was too much for the old city of Suffolk to resist.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the town was growing, but there was little space for budding businesses to establish roots or for new residents to build homes in the landlocked city.

Former Suffolk Mayor Andy Damiani, who was a member of the Suffolk City Council at the time, said old Suffolk was filled to capacity and needed to spread out. The only place it could go was into Nansemond.

“Suffolk and Nansemond seemed like a natural thing,” he said. “It was almost like one city anyway.”

He said both places stood to benefit from a merger.

“It was a convenience for old Suffolk that needed to grow and for Nansemond County that needed infrastructure,” he said. “It was a win-win for each community.”

But the process was not without a few bumps in the road.

Almost 10 years before the 1974 consolidation, a first attempt at a merger took place in 1966.

The two municipalities hired a consulting firm to study the possibility of coming together as one city.

The firm advised against a merger, but the two groups still pushed forward and asked voters for their opinion that fall.

The referendum would have created a joint housing and redevelopment authority; combined the operations of some government departments, such as welfare; and allowed annexation of Nansemond land by Suffolk to double its size.

But the measure failed, and Nansemond and Suffolk put the idea of a merger aside.

However, Suffolk still had nowhere to stretch its rapidly growing legs — so it turned to the court system.

The city filed an annexation suit in 1968 to acquire 17 square miles of Nansemond County, which included the town of Holland.

Damiani said the people in Nansemond County thought Suffolk was trying to take over their land and rallied against Suffolk’s move.

D.J. Mangum, the first and only mayor of the city of Nansemond, said in a 2009 interview most Nansemond residents were bothered that the portion of land stretched out so far and included an established area of the county and a school.

At the same time, the northern portion of the county was feeling pressure from the east. The city of Portsmouth was eyeing land in the Bennett’s Creek area.

“They needed more territory, because they needed more businesses,” Damiani said.

Mangum said the county saw the two localities inching in and wanted to avoid losing the land.

“We found the proper thing to do was to jump through the hoops to become a city,” he said.

At the time, annexation laws did not allow a city to take possession of another city, so the county could dodge the pursuits by Suffolk and Portsmouth by making itself a city.

In 1972, the city of Nansemond was born.

Mangum said Portsmouth gave up its quest, but Suffolk was already in court pursuing annexation.

As the same time Nansemond was trying to become a city, Suffolk was telling a special three-judge panel why it needed extra land.

Suffolk officials said the city was like the hole of a doughnut and had nowhere to go, Damiani recalled.

But the judges weren’t convinced, saying there had to be a better solution. They gave the two localities 45 days to craft an agreement that would consolidate the cities.

With tons of work to do and only about a month to do it, 40 citizens — half from each locality — maneuvered toward a compromise.

“We worked around the clock every night,” Damiani said. “It was intensive, but we did it with the intentions of doing something.”

But there was a lot to work out before the cities could become one. Finances were a big issue for the group, because Nansemond had a surplus, while Suffolk had debt. Mangum said Nansemond residents weren’t interested in paying off Suffolk’s creditors.

To fix the problem, the group developed taxing districts, where residents would only pay for the services they received.

Other issues the group ran into were combining the schools, building a joint budget and creating better infrastructure in Nansemond.

“I think we did a good job coming together and working through it,” Mangum said. “We worked out how we were going to handle all of these specific things.”

By August 1972, an agreement was reached.

But there was one more group that had to approve it — the voters. If the referendum didn’t pass in either Nansemond or Suffolk, it wouldn’t happen.

That November, voters in both localities passed the referendum by a significant margin, in the same election in which voters nationwide re-elected Richard Nixon over contender George McGovern.

Only one voting precinct, Ebenezer, objected to the merger.

A little more than a year later, the cities officially merged at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1974.

The city of Suffolk went from taking up two square miles in Virginia to being the fourth largest city geographically in the nation at the time. Its population increased fivefold, from 9,000 to 45,000.

The short-lived city of Nansemond faded away, and the Suffolk that exists today came into being.

The transitions between the two cities are not seamless, but with each year that passes, they fade a little bit more into the landscape of a single municipality, Virginia’s largest city by geography.