Land for water

Published 9:10 pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.

How North Suffolk almost became Portsmouth

Land and water.

The combination of the two made Suffolk Virginia’s largest city by area after the 1974 merger between the cities of Suffolk and Nansemond.

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But even after the merger, the politics of land and water continued to shape debate in Suffolk — and for a while even threatened to shape the new city’s borders.

After the city of Nansemond and the old city of Suffolk merged in 1974, the new Suffolk had something that neighboring Portsmouth desperately wanted — land. But Portsmouth also had something that Suffolk needed — water.

Although Suffolk has several water supplies, Portsmouth had owned and supplied the water to the area since 1920. But soon after the county and city came together, a conversation about exchanging land for water began that would last for years to come.

A little more than a year after the merger, the first talk of a land-for-water swap came from then-City Councilman Andy Damiani, who suggested the city should look into giving Portsmouth land in North Suffolk in exchange for part of the water supply.

“It made a lot of sense,” Damiani said. “(Portsmouth) really wanted some new land.”

The real estate he was suggesting should be offered up was the very land Portsmouth had wanted to annex not five years earlier. But not everyone took kindly to the suggestion.

In 1975, when Damiani suggested his land-for-water plan, Portsmouth and Suffolk had been working for more than a year to negotiate a deal for water distribution, and talks were near a standstill, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

Prior to the merger, Portsmouth had agreements with both Suffolk and Nansemond, but when the two became one, a new deal had to be arranged.

To complicate things, Nansemond County’s water deal had expired in 1970, which meant Portsmouth could ban further extension of its service into the new city, effectively bringing residential, business and industrial development to a halt.

As a result, Damiani wanted to study the possibility of an exchange.

“I just said, ‘Let’s just take a look,’” he recalled recently.

He proposed that Portsmouth should get a section of the northeastern part of the city in exchange for half-interest in its water supply for Suffolk.

The amount of real estate ceded to Portsmouth would have depended on the value of the water supply Suffolk would get, he said in a 1975 interview.

Giving the land to Portsmouth seemed to make sense at the time, he added, because the area’s residents were closer to Portsmouth than they were to the center of Suffolk, and they were more likely to spend their disposable income in Portsmouth.

But as soon as Damiani shared his plan with the public, negative responses came pouring in.

Then-Mayor James F. Hope, Vice Mayor Moses Riddick Jr. and Councilman J.W. Nelms, of the Sleepy Hole district, immediately spoke out against the plan.

“It is my firm belief that this territory is a valuable asset to the city of Suffolk and has the greatest potential for future growth,” Hope said in a 1975 interview.

All three men wanted to explore alternative ideas for getting water to the city, instead of putting potentially valuable Suffolk property on the Portsmouth tax rolls.

Hope said he wanted to meet with other localities that might be able to provide water services.

Nelms was in favor of a plan to get water from the Roanoke River through a partnership with North Carolina, while Riddick wanted Suffolk to develop its own water resources.

At the time, Damiani said he was in favor of Suffolk creating its own water supply, but he didn’t think the citizens of Suffolk would want to cover the cost.

“We know we have to deal with Portsmouth or go to our own system,” he said back then. “We know we have to make that choice.”

But many people still weren’t keen on the trade, especially residents of the former Nansemond County, some of whom lived in the area that would become a new part of Portsmouth.

The county had a history with Portsmouth. In fact, one of the main reasons Nansemond County became a city in 1972 was to avoid annexation of the same land by Portsmouth.

Damiani said the people in the area were adamantly against changing the boundaries between the cities.

“It was shot down so quickly before the ink was dry,” he said.

Two years later, though, the proposal reappeared when Suffolk encountered a new water problem.

Shortly after Damiani’s idea was abandoned in 1975, the Suffolk City Council told Portsmouth it wanted to purchase the water distribution system.

But by January 1977, the two cities were still trying to work out a deal. So Damiani stood up once again with his land-for-water swap.

He said the exchange would free up the capital improvement money that Suffolk was planning to use for the water system to pay for other needs, such as construction of new schools.

“I think we should negotiate some type of agreement with Portsmouth (on water), free some money and pay off the debt service for schools through anticipated growth,” he said in 1977.

But people still didn’t like the idea of giving land away.

Damiani’s plan had been shot down twice, but for years after the original suggestion, the idea of a swap between the localities stuck around.

It was suggested by leaders from both cities throughout the next decade, but the plans always failed to move forward.

And even now, Suffolk still gets part of its water supply from Portsmouth, and Portsmouth remains unable to do much to increase its real estate tax base.

In 2009, the Western Tidewater Water Authority, which includes Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, worked out a deal with Norfolk that provides 15 million gallons of water a day for 40 years to the areas.

Damiani said he still thinks the city should have explored his idea further, but he realizes Suffolk would have missed out of the development of the northern part of the city.

“It was a good plan, but the way it came out we would have given all of North Suffolk away,” he said. “It lets you know how important North Suffolk has become.”