I'm in heavy traffic with local environmental leader Karen Forget, navigating the aging, asphalt and concrete heart of Chesapeake Bay's second biggest city.
More development's coming here soon, she said: "and it's really going to help us."
Her unexpected enthusiasm recalls the way Virginia's visionary architect and author William McDonough often ends presentations on how ecologically intelligent design could transform society:
"Imagine if they said we're building a new mall and our first thought was, 'great, that'll mean cleaner air and water and more wildlife.' "
But that's the vision. This is Virginia Beach — population 460,000, almost as paved —38 percent— as Baltimore, draining directly through a thousand storm drains into its principal river, the Lynnhaven. It's a conurbation where some of the nation's "boomiest"
growth since the 1960s has consumed wetlands and armored once natural shorelines with a vengeance, annexing the surrounding county out of existence.
For all of its size, it's easy to overlook Virginia Beach. Downstream from everyone else in the Bay's six-state, 64,000-mile watershed, it's squarely at the corner of Chesapeake and Atlantic, where humpback whales play just offshore, where the Jamestown colonists first touched the New World in 1607.
But it would be a mistake to overlook this place, which has some important lessons for the broader restoration of the Chesapeake. The Lynnhven watershed is exhibit number one. It's a nice, graspable scale. At 64-square miles, this watershed is precisely one one-thousandth of the entire Chesapeake watershed.
In the last decade, environmentalists like those in Forget's 6,000-member group, Lynnhaven River NOW, working with the city, have reopened nearly half of the polluted Lynnhaven to oystering. Aquaculture continues to thrive.
And years before the EPA began its restoration strategy of enforcing total maximum daily (pollution) loads — on which the jury is still out — Virginia Beach made a TMDL work. The city hooked more than 11,000 septic tanks to modern sewage treatment and enacted Virginia's first no-discharge zone for boats on a Bay tributary. Expensive public works were complemented by educational efforts that focused on "scoop the poop" (from an estimated 60,000-80,000 pets), and backyard rain gardens and rain barrels to catch homeowners' stormwater.
Passing Great Neck Middle School, Forget noted that it has been designed to capture stormwater running off its roofs in underground cisterns and use it to water the grounds and flush toilets. Not far away, College Park Elementary goes one better. It has zero discharge of stormwater and meets the nation's highest green building certification — LEED Platinum.
And these are not meant to be exceptional, Forget said; they are the standard for all new city projects. Meeting that goal "remains a challenge," she conceded, "but the idea is that city buildings should model best environmental behavior."
This summer, the city closed the deal on something extraordinary — protecting more than a mile of open shoreline, the last remaining big chunk of nature on the Lynnhaven, for public use. Slated for more than a thousand units, the 118 acres at Pleasure House Point united city government with an array of national, regional and local environmental and citizen groups to raise the $13 million price, a struggle that took a decade.
So how did Virginia Beach get religion on the environment? I asked Harry Lester, whose gorgeous golf course home, on land that was the Lynnhaven's last farm, looks across a cove to where twin, 11-story condo units were to have risen from Pleasure House Point.
"Oh, we don't have religion," said Lester, for 30 years a commercial Realtor here. "Everyone wants to think, save the environment, save the Bay; but this is a very conservative place, a no-tax zone.
"But the city realizes the beach…the river are our bread and butter and people really do understand we need to take care of our water."
If few worship water quality per se, many come close to having religion about the divine-tasting shellfish that once made these waters world famous, the Lynnhaven oyster.
Technically it is simply Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, a bivalve species occurring from maritime Canada all the way to the Texas Gulf coast and beyond. But more than any other seafood, the humble oyster may be said to exhibit 'terroir,' a French word expressing the ineffable influences of soil and climate and region on the taste of wines.
And so it is that 'Lynnhavens,' benefitting from just the right combination of Bay and ocean salinities, nutrients from the local wetlands, excellent tidal flushing —and surely, from some able marketing buzz — became iconic the world over. "Chalk and cheese," a local booster once described the gap between any other river's oysters and his beloved Lynnhavens.
Noted for both taste and large size, Lynnhavens were deemed extraordinary from the start: The first colonists in 1607 found some left roasting by fleeing natives, remarkably "large and delicate in taste," wrote a member of the crew.
Lynnhavens from the 1800s were served to U.S. presidents and British royalty, shipped by admirers to actress Sarah Bernhardt in France, demanded by New York's finest restaurants and allegedly served aboard the Titanic.
And then they were gone, as development and pollution, combined with oyster diseases, virtually ended oystering in the river by the 1980s.
In the 1960s, Lester said one of life's pleasures in Virginia Beach was to slip in the side door of the old Duck Inn, now cleared away awaiting condo development, "and there would be these guys shucking oysters, and cold beer and those oysters were all coming right out of the river there, pretty much year-round. It was very special and we took it for granted."
About a decade ago, Lester said, he and a fellow businessman, Andy Fine, were missing the Duck Inn and its raw oysters "and we thought 'what would it take to get them back?' " At that point, high bacteria loads had put 99 percent of the Lynnhaven off-limits for harvesting shellfish.
"We met with the city manager and he said, 'sure, we'll work with you, but you know, you guys are nuts,' " Lester said. With guidance from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a staff of one from the city, he and several contributors in 2002 founded Lynnhaven River 2007, named to reflect their goal of eating oysters from the river within five years (and 400 years after the first colonists encountered the Lynnhaven oysters).
"The time came, and we ate oysters again, more symbolic than a full comeback, but wow!" Lester said: "and then we began to get serious."
"Elected officials from all over the watershed should come down and spend a morning with us on the Lynnhaven," said Christy Everett, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's regional office in Hampton Roads.
So how much are the Lynnhaven and Virginia Beach a model for the rest of the Chesapeake? Do they know something down there that other places need to discover?
The answers, during a morning skiff outing on the river with CBF scientist Chris Moore, seem to be a qualified, but emphatic, yes.
For mile after mile, shoreline development is intense — homes, docks, boats, marinas, storm drains, rip rap and sheer bulkheading. One street, Red Tide road, is named for a toxic algae. Old canals dug in the 1960s are chockablock with homes and prone to oxygen depletion. First Landing State Park's 2,800 acres and long, forested shoreline provides welcome respite, and the shoreline there is full of hikers, picnickers and kayakers.
And there are oysters all over, growing along wetland edges, clumped on rocks armoring the shoreline, growing in storm drains. In recent years, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, assisted by the CBF and the renamed Lynnhaven River NOW, have installed more than 63 acres of new oyster reefs, sanctuaries that seem to be thriving, filling the river each summer with larvae that attach and grow.
Lynnhaven NOW's latest environmental grade for the river is a 'B.' That's a comprehensive score including public awareness, water quality funding, public access and such. Selecting out for bacteria, oxygen, nutrients and water clarity yields closer to a 'C,' not too different from the Bay overall (but still remarkably good for an urbanized watershed). Native submerged grasses remain badly depleted here, as in much of the Chesapeake.
"But the trend is clearly improvement, of restoration on the right track," Moore said.
The Lynnhaven has advantages that some other Bay rivers lack. The city's sewage treatment plants discharge into the Atlantic and areas of the Chesapeake outside the river. And while Virginia Beach has worked successfully to retain agriculture, whose runoff is one of the Chesapeake's most stubborn problems, all of the farms here drain to North Carolina's sounds.
There is one thing almost everyone you talk to mentions among reasons the Lynnhaven is improving. A clean water task force begun several years ago meets monthly and brings together every city agency and all of the region's environmental groups. "It's made a lot of inroads and developed very strong relationships," said Clay Bernick, the Virginia Beach official charged with developing an environmental sustainability plan.
That plan's strength, Bernick said, will lie in its inclusiveness. "It starts by looking for a triple bottom line (what will improve things) environmentally, socially and economically; and even that isn't enough if we don't broaden the base of support to include the churches, the chambers of commerce, the CBFs."
With its tourism industry and a big military presence, Virginia Beach is affluent enough to keep property taxes among the lowest in the region, he said. The city taxes restaurant meals to generate a couple of million dollars a year for open space acquisition, unique among the Bay's incorporated cities.
And while Virginia Beach is politically conservative, "a lot of those conservatives have military backgrounds, so they can see government's side of things, which is not the case everywhere these days," he said.
Like many others, Bernick, credits the long-term, stable leadership by James K. Spore — the city manager for 21 years— for the city's environmental progress. He's the one who told Lester and crew they were "nuts" while lending a staffer to help clean up the river.
It might seem counterintuitive for a place where development has so hammered the river to put its faith in more development, Bernick said. But given the paucity of environmental controls and good planning in decades past, redevelopment actually represents a huge opportunity.
This goes to Forget's optimism over the coming new mall. The city has selected seven strategic growth areas, six of them draining to the Lynnhaven, that will reshape Virginia Beach toward higher density, with more green space, superior runoff controls, green building standards and multiple transit alternatives to cars.
"Early on, the founders of Lynnhaven River NOW said they were tired of Portland (OR) always being cited for livability and environment, and I'm starting to see some of the results of that thinking," Bernick said.
Forget pulls onto a shady street and up a drive heavily planted with native species. It's the riverfront home of Darcy and Brooks Stephan, who lived here for a decade in a 900-square-foot cottage before building their dream home.
With Lynnhaven NOW's assistance, the Stephans are doing something radical. On their little swatch of waterfront — at 1,500 square feet no larger than many rooms in the Lynnhaven's waterfront castles — they are installing a natural wetland to protect against erosion. The state is just beginning to encourage such devices after decades of pushing armored shorelines everywhere.
"We need models," Forget said. "Whenever people buy, they look left and right and all they see is rock on the shore and they assume there's no alternative."
Education is still much of what she does, and much of the long-term formula for success. Forget said: "Scoop the poop, install rain gardens, don't feed the resident geese who poop in the river, plant a tree, stop fertilizing the lawn…one thing builds upon another."
And soon the Bay Foundation's going to build on newly protected Pleasure House Point what is proposed as one of the greenest education centers in the United States. It will tie in with a city schools drive to make environmental education a signature achievement.
The building aspires well beyond LEED standards, to something known as the Living Building Challenge, of which only a few examples exist in the world. (Many more are in the works.)
The concept is another one that McDonough articulates: "Imagine a building like a tree…that makes its own oxygen, produces no wastes…" The CBF center will be completely off the grid as far as energy and wastes, consisting of local materials and as organic to its surroundings as possible. The desire to build it here was a reason CBF kicked in a million dollars toward buying Pleasure House Point. Don Baugh, who directs all of the CBF's educational efforts Baywide, said it was not so much the physical location that impressed him as the broad and compelling constituency that had developed around restoring the Lynnhaven. "Go for this with all the passion and resources you can bring…it's the place for us to be," he told the CBF's Everett.
Just offshore from the new CBF center, against a backdrop of heavy traffic streaming along Shore Drive across Lynnhaven Inlet, Chris Ludford pulls up his aquaculture cages and offers for the shucking a few choice Lynnhavens from his small oyster farm. He's one of several oyster farmers at work on the river now, planting millions of bivalves annually.
Ludford's oysters are tonic to the palette, so fat and firm one wants to describe them as crisp. A strange term for a slithery invertebrate, but I am upheld by famous foodie MFK Fisher in her classic, 1941 book, "Consider the Oyster": "for me one of the pleasures of eating a raw oyster is the crispness of its flesh."
Prices on the wall of a local seafood shop tell the bottom line: James River oysters, $6 a dozen; Seasides from Virginia's Atlantic Bays, $6; Lynnhavens, $11.
"Oysters, when you think about it, are the essential community," Laurie Sorabella said as we watch local pound net-
ters unload their catch and people line up to buy fresh fish. They grow all clumped together, united for better or for worse, creating within their complex structures all sorts of niches for other marine life, becoming a reef, a city of life.
Sorabella is a restoration biologist who has 167 schools in her reefkeepers program raising little oysters to be planted in the wild. The afternoon sun picks up a grayish-white point of land out in the Lynnhaven — a successful reef built in 2008, getting better every year.
Everyone pitched in to help — the state, local citizens, schoolchildren, local restaurants that routinely collect their oyster shells, Sorabella said, "a true community effort to build a community of oysters.