People living near chemical tanks say it's still home
By VICTORIA BOURNE
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) — On a warm June afternoon, Edora Mitchell stood in the doorway of her small, circa 1930s home in South Hill.
Stone woodland creatures guarded the corners of her front stoop. A tall deer statue was frozen at attention nearby. Large cylindrical chemical tanks rose in plain view across the street.
Mitchell has lived there since the late 1960s. She's in her mid-80s now, and almost everyone around her is gone.
"There ain't no neighborhood," she said.
But to Mitchell and a few other hardy souls, this is still home. And they intend to stay put.
Roughly two years have passed since jet fuel leaked from a nearby storage container. The incident prompted an evacuation of the 11-acre community, which is wedged between Interstate 464 and an industrial site with about two-dozen tanks of fuel and fertilizer.
That was only the latest environmental crisis to threaten residents. In 2008, more than 2 million gallons of liquid fertilizer flooded the community after a tank collapsed. More spilled two years later.
Since the most recent occurrence, Chesapeake has spent more than $2.6 million buying about 30 properties and tearing down homes as part of a voluntary program touted by city officials as an effort to keep people healthy and safe.
In addition, more than $38,000 from a Housing Trust Fund helped 19 tenants move out of the neighborhood, officials say.
Only a handful South Hill's residences remain — a home here, a couple homes there. In between are shadows of what was: concrete pads that hint at long-gone driveways. Open green space split by ivy-shrouded chain-link fences. A lonely and overgrown detached garage, its door agape.
Not all the residents left are digging in their heels; a few just want more help getting out.
Domineka Barnard's little white house, built in 1950, according to property records, is the only one remaining on a street that once had seven or eight. She bought it from her father, Marvin Hill, in 2009 for $120,000.
Barnard planned to live in it but decided to rent it out instead. She's had trouble keeping tenants.
"It's empty out here," Barnard said. The first thing people see as they drive down the Rosemont Avenue flyover is a tank, she added.
Barnard, 33, wants to sell her property to the city, which has offered to pay the assessed value of $93,900. But her mortgage is over $101,000, and she's appealing to the City Council to pay the difference. She's not trying to make a profit, she said, she just wants out — free and clear.
"And then I can walk away, and they can walk away, and it's a done deal," she said.
The council is scheduled to hear her appeal Tuesday.
One street over are Larry and Sandra Whitehurst, a retired couple who have lived in their home since 1982. They, too, appealed to the City Council, but to no avail.
"We're stuck like chuck like we was before," Larry Whitehurst said.
Two years ago, he was one of the first homeowners who tried to leave, he said. The city offered $116,000 for the home, according to Pilot archives, but that was $18,000 short of what the couple owed. Property records show the home is currently assessed at $104,800.
Whitehurst said he just wants a "fair shake" — enough to pay his mortgage and relocate. The couple's appeal to council members was turned down in 2016.
City officials say they empathize with Barnard and Whitehurst but that there's a bigger picture to consider, including being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
"We want to be fair and equitable to all our citizens," said Deputy City Manager Wanda Barnard-Bailey.
The program was not intended as a buyout "to assist people relative to their financial situation," Barnard-Bailey said. It was to help people move somewhere safer.
The South Norfolk Property Acquisition Program was established in 2012 with the intention of acquiring commercial properties in that community. Funding comes from a tax district created to direct public money toward improvement projects in that area.
In 2015, the City Council approved the acquisition of residential properties.
Less than a year later, and two months after the jet fuel spill prompted the evacuation of South Hill, the council OK'd using money from the program to buy properties in the neighborhood, through voluntary sales, "in order to promote public health and safety," according to city documents.
The estimated cost to get everyone out of South Hill, including the two properties that have been appealed to the council, is about $3.9 million, Barnard-Bailey said.
But a few residents, like Mitchell, have no plans to leave.
On a recent afternoon, an elderly couple, Herman and Georgia Wilson, sat in chairs in the shade of their small porch. Two lion statues flanked the steps leading to the front door. A nearby mimosa tree was covered in hairy pink-and-white blooms.
They've lived in the house, which Herman said he built himself, for 50 years. And they have family nearby, including their son Michael, who lives across the street, and Mitchell, who is Georgia's sister.
"I like that," Georgia said.
Michael Wilson, who is 61, was raised in South Hill and is grateful to have been there this long.
"It's just a paradise to me," he said. "I've been here all my life. I don't want to go nowhere else."
He remembers dancing around the Maypole at the school that once occupied what is now a neighborhood park.
According to a historical marker near the play area, the South Hill Colored Elementary School operated there from 1921 to 1964, serving grades one through seven. It closed in the wake of desegregation, the sign says.
There were no children playing on a recent Tuesday afternoon, but don't be fooled, Wilson said; it's by no means a dead park.
"It gets busy on the weekends."
Wilson called South Hill a spot of country living in the middle of the city. There are no break-ins and no shootings — it's peace and quiet all the time, he said.
His wife tells him, "Ain't nothing around here but raccoons and rabbits."
The foundation and front steps of a recently demolished house sit across the narrow street from Michael Wilson's home. A woman in her late 90s had lived there, he said. Property records show she'd owned the home since 1967 until it was sold to the city in March 2018.
"I wish they'd bring the neighborhood back," Wilson said.
That's not likely to happen, according to city officials. What investment is being done includes plans to move South Hill's park closer to remaining homes.
Barnard-Bailey said that to prevent eyesores, the city has moved quickly to demolish the houses it acquired.
"It's still someone's home in there, and we want to respect that it's their home," she said.
Signs marking city-owned property read: "No trespassing, dumping, parking." One boarded-up house is still visible along Interstate 464, which separates South Hill from the rest of South Norfolk.
Some South Hill property owners argue that the city will get more money selling the land than what it has spent to buy it. Why not throw in a little more for people who want to move out?
Barnard-Bailey said that based on the current price of industrial property, South Hill's location and what it has to offer, it's doubtful the city will see a windfall.
"Our hope is we can at least come out even," she said.
The properties could be marketed individually or lumped together, city officials said. South Hill's existing businesses could expand if they chose, according to Barnard-Bailey. Or an industrial park could be built.
Marvin Hill owns and operates a junk-removal service in South Hill. He's also the civic league president — "What's left of us."
Hill's family roots in South Hill go back 80 years. He was born and raised there, he said, though he now lives in Deep Creek.
He recalls it as a great community. It might not have looked like much, he said, "but we made it work."
Hill has been a proponent of the effort to buy up the houses. He just wants to see the city finish what it started by spending the extra money to help homeowners like his daughter, Domineka, get out.
"Don't leave it undone," he said.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com