Overdue for an overhaul

Published 10:17 pm Thursday, June 26, 2014

It’s hard to beat a home with an unobstructed view of the beautiful Nansemond River. That was likely at least part of the thinking behind a developer’s decision to clear a stretch of shoreline near Hillpoint Elementary School. But that decision has become a touchstone in the debate over how Suffolk can contribute to efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The Virginia General Assembly passed the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in 1988 to protect the watershed and improve water quality. Localities were required to create ordinances to enforce it. One of the act’s main components is a ban on clearing vegetation within 100 feet of the shoreline.

But weak enforcement provisions in Suffolk’s version of the Chesapeake Bay ordinance, along with confusion about what kind of waterfront work the city actually allows and an apparent lack of coordination between the city’s Wetlands Board and its Planning Department, resulted in Parker Crossing LLC being allowed to clear 2,000 feet of shoreline without any required mitigation — arguably a violation of, at least, the spirit of the Chesapeake Bay Act.

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Developers say they cleared trees and other vegetation that were falling down and contributing to heavy erosion of the riverbank. City officials, however, say they should have been consulted before the clearing took place. In the final analysis, the deed is done, and Suffolk’s competing jurisdictions and lack of civil penalties for most violations mean there is no recourse, even if the developers were clearly wrong in their actions.

In a white paper on the Hillpoint case, two third-year law students at the College of William and Mary have appealed to Suffolk to create a unified Chesapeake Bay board to deal with issues under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The students also believe the city should introduce civil penalties for violations of the clearing ban.

City officials have said they learned some lessons from the Hillpoint situation. Among those lessons should be this: Suffolk’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation ordinance is overdue for an overhaul.