Virginia Beach Is Considering A Bond Referendum To Fund Flood Reduction Projects
Residents of Virginia Beach may face a pivotal question on their ballots this year — one that could determine the city’s long-term response to flooding and sea level rise.
Virginia Beach’s charter restricts how much debt it can issue. The ballot question would ask voters for permission to surpass that limit, allowing the city to borrow $567 million to fund several new flood reduction projects.
City Council is still considering whether to add the bond referendum to local ballots. The city will not ask residents to pay any new fees or taxes to fund the projects.
The referendum proposal comes as Hampton Roads is expected to see at least 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and potentially 3 feet by 2085.
City officials have been reviewing flooding’s impact on Virginia Beach and the best ways to address it.
One city study showed that 3 feet of higher waters could cost the city $300 million a year if no action is taken. It also suggested Virginia Beach must spend $2 billion to $5 billion on projects to respond to flooding and climate change.
“We see our vulnerabilities, and now we know what to do,” City Manager Ron Williams recently told WHRO.
If voters support the referendum measure and Virginia Beach raises the money, workers would launch projects in some of the city’s most flood-prone areas.
They include restoring natural flood barriers like wetlands in the Back Bay area; adding a stormwater system to parts of the Oceanfront; building pump stations around Windsor Woods; and installing a tidal gate on Thalia Creek.
Williams said the city also would convert Bow Creek Golf Course into a recreational space with retention ponds that store stormwater.
All of the projects would be completed within 10 years, he said.
“We have the ability to create a flood protection program that is sustainable, that is comprehensive and that will last several generations,” Williams told City Council during a recent meeting.
The new projects would be part of a bigger effort to harden Virginia Beach against flooding. It will also include repairing aging stormwater infrastructure and making maintenance more routine.
For example, the city currently repairs retention ponds every 25 years. Officials want to speed that up to every 20 years. Workers would also clear stormwater drainage ditches every 8 years instead of 12.
“Just an everyday rainstorm — which is more frequent and more intense now — we should be able to handle and not have property damage like we’ve had in the past,” Williams said.
Officials hope the federal government will help fund the maintenance efforts. The city also could rely on revenue from stormwater utility fees and real estate taxes.
Williams noted that previously-scheduled incremental increases to stormwater fees will help with funding.
Councilwoman Barbara Henley, who represents parts of the city most vulnerable to flooding, told WHRO she supports the new flood protection program and is inclined to approve the ballot referendum.
Still, she’s concerned the new projects will put Virginia Beach in too much debt. She said council may have to limit how much the city borrows for the program.
“We’ve got to pay it back,” she said. “And so we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We don’t want to go spend a whole lot of money on projects that don’t do what they’re supposed to.”
Henley said she’s currently gauging voters’ support for the flood protection program and possible referendum question. The city is asking residents to complete an online survey about their experiences with flooding and how Virginia Beach can better address it.
During a council meeting on the flood protection program earlier in June, Mayor Bobby Dyer expressed support for the referendum question. He directed the City Manager’s office to begin drafting language for it.
In order to add the referendum to ballots in November, council will have to authorize and file it in Circuit Court by Aug. 13.
If voters support the referendum, Williams said the city could issue additional bonds in the future to fund more flood-reduction work.
But if residents reject it, Virginia Beach would have to seek other ways of funding resilience projects. That could include pursuing more state and federal money.