Sunday, August 7, 2022

Sandbridge residents ask for emergency declaration to help clear encroaching sand; city offers alternatives

Courtesy of City of Virginia Beach.
(Courtesy of city of Virginia Beach)

VIRGINIA BEACH —  The Sandbridge Civic League wants the city to declare the exclusive beach neighborhood is in a state of emergency.

Dozens of homes there have been severely impacted by westward-blown sand that has swallowed fences, exposed jagged bulkheads to foot-traffic and invaded pool areas on private property. David Whitley, a resident there, said sand has piled up against some windows and doors on homes so high and so thickly they can’t be opened.

“They (homeowners) are stuck inside” at those entrances, Whitley said.

The wind constantly pushes the sand westward from the beach. Residents used to scoop it up and take it back where it came from, but then the city’s Wetlands Board started levying fines against those who did, Whitley said.

So some residents stopped. And the sand piled up, damaging fences and property along the way, Whitley said.

Because replacing that sand alters the beach and dunes, state laws and city ordinances require residents to obtain a special permit from the Wetlands Board before moving it back, according to City Attorney Mark Stiles. Those permits, which allow work only one time, can take up to 90 days and $3,000 to obtain, Stiles told the City Council Tuesday.

As a result, Whitley said, “if you go through all that and finally move all that sand, and then the next day the wind comes and blows the sand over your fence again, you’ve got to start all over.”

Intimidated by the permitting process and the fines handed down for working without one, members of the civic league hired an attorney and an engineer to find a solution.

That’s when they found an exception in the laws requiring the permit: If a state of emergency is declared because of a threat to public safety or health, a permit isn’t needed to remove the sand.

And so the civic league adopted a resolution on May 21 asking for the city to place the neighborhood in a state of emergency. It argued that the piles of sand have exposed “rusty and jagged edges of old bulkhead sheet piles to foot traffic” and reduced the effective height of fences encircling swimming pools, according to Stiles’ presentation.

“It really is a huge liability issue,” Whitley said.

Civic League President Joan Davis and others who attended the council meeting hoping for resolution deferred questions to Whitley.

Courtesy of City of Virginia Beach.
(Courtesy of city of Virginia Beach)

Deputy City Manager Tom Leahy and Stiles visited the neighborhood to get a lay of the sand, they said at the meeting.

They found that the civic league was not exaggerating, Leahy said. He described some property situations as “severe” and said they posed threats to public health and safety.

With Stiles, he took photos of sand that toppled a 5-foot fence and provided a bridge for would-be trespassers and another that let vegetation sprout up in a home’s pool area. Other photos showed exposed bulkheads that Leahy said were supposed to be above the sand but are now below it and could cause severe injury if fallen on.

“These conditions did not spring up over night,” Leahy said. “Many of them developed over many months and in some cases many years.”

Still, other properties didn’t have it so bad and a “blanket state of emergency” wouldn’t do, Stiles and Leahy said. So they came up with alternative recommendations for the City Council.

The first is to alleviate the situation by granting property owners who do have an emergency an administrative permit so they can remove sand immediately. The second is to retool the permit process — make it shorter and cheaper — and the permit itself, so it allows continuous sand removal for up to a year and can be extended twice.

But the permanent and most important solution to the sand pile-up issue, Stiles and Whitley said, is something the city and residents can’t do and can only lobby for: change state law.

“The state law doesn’t have a very good fit with Sandbridge Beach,” which is man-made, Stiles said.

The City Council could vote on some of the recommendations June 21, allowing for clean-up to be completed by early July, Stiles said.

Civic League members in attendance, including Whitley, said they liked the recommendations and are hopeful.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact City Hall reporter Judah Taylor at or 757-490-2750.

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