City buys land at auction

Published 10:02 pm Friday, June 30, 2017

Following an auction Thursday, a riverfront property could play a key role in Suffolk’s efforts to clean up the Nansemond River and beautify the area around of one of the city’s prime intersections.

In a small conference space in the hotel across the river from the property, a 26-acre parcel that once housed a bulk petroleum plant and a motorcycle dealership and has sat vacant since about 2003 passed from private, family ownership into the city’s real estate portfolio.

The winning bid? $325,000. With a 10-percent buyer’s premium included, the city of Suffolk will pay a total of $357,500 for the property.

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There was only one other bid — $300,000 — for the property.

Both buyers and sellers were pleased with the result.

“I’m very excited about it,” City Manager Patrick Roberts said in a phone interview on Friday. “This does so many things for us.”

“We’re hoping the city does well with it,” Edward T. “Ted” Lemmon III said after signing the paperwork to ink the deal on Thursday. “It’s a good space for the city.”

Lemmon and his siblings have had the property, which runs along the waterfront from the Kimberly Bridge downstream and around the first bend in the river, on the market for about five years, according to Jinks Babey, his sister.

Their father bought the property in the ’60s and ran Suffolk Oil Co. and a Honda motorcycle dealership there for many years. Edward Lemmon Jr. died 13 years ago, and the family began selling various parts of the business he had built. By 2003, nearly all of the Suffolk Oil assets had been sold, leaving the Kimberly property for disposal.

“We had to wait to sell it until all four siblings were ready,” Babey said.

During the five years the property was on the market, the sellers had received three different offers, and there had been occasional interest by commercial developers, largely because of its high visibility to traffic passing on nearby North Main Street and Constance Road.

But Roberts noted that “technical challenges” with commercial development — the site is prone to flooding during nor’easters, hurricanes and even unusually high tides — would make a fast food restaurant or some other similar commercial establishment a tough business case.

For the city, though, he said the property is the perfect fit.

“The gateways in and around downtown — the open space in and around downtown — is going to continue to be a focus for us,” Roberts said. “Kimberly is going to continue to be a priority for us.”

Turning the property into some sort of public area — “perhaps a passive open space,” Roberts said — could be a key to meeting the goal of improving the areas that are seen as gateways into Suffolk’s downtown core.

“I don’t see a lot of hardscape there,” Roberts said. “In terms of pollution and pollutant removal, this end of the river needs help,” and impervious areas like parking lots or buildings would increase runoff into the river.

Roberts said it is also unlikely that a boat ramp will be built on the property, as there’s not enough room for trailer parking there.

On the other hand, a picnic area, a trailhead for a riverfront path or some sort of expansion to nearby Constance Wharf Park are all possibilities, he said.

Regarding the riverfront trail, he said, “I’d love to see it. This would be an ideal place to start that.”

Suffolk businessman Eddie White placed the only other bid for the property and was unwilling to counter when the city’s representative raised the bid to $325,000.

“I was interested in this as an investment,” he said.

“It’s right here in downtown, so it would have been good for a restaurant or something,” he said, noting that he’d have expected to build any such structure on stilts to put it above the floodplain.

Auctioneer Barry Cole started the proceedings with a sort of benediction for the property that reflected what appeared to be the desires of everyone involved.

“My great hope is that whoever gets it will do something great for Suffolk,” he said.

Less than three minutes later, the auction was over.