- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) - You probably missed it.

Most drivers do, as they whiz down Interstate 464. Rarely do they take notice of Chesapeake’s South Hill neighborhood, a postage stamp of a community wedged between the highway and a tank farm that stores millions of gallons of fuel and fertilizer.

But every few years, South Hill makes headlines. In 2008, more than 2 million gallons of liquid fertilizer spilled when a tank collapsed, sending the fluid surging into streets and yards. More spilled in 2010. Then last month, 75,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from an overfilled storage tank.

Each time, a flurry of attention descends on the little neighborhood of about 30 homes. Then, residents say, they’re forgotten once more.

“Sooner or later, something tragic is going to happen,” said Walter Skyles, vice president of the neighborhood’s civic league.

Now the Jan. 22 leak has reignited concerns about safety, and many homeowners are saying they want out. For years the city has unsuccessfully sought funding to redevelop South Hill and help relocate those who want to leave.

Marvin Hill, president of the civic league, said residents are once again looking to the city and others for a plan.

“What’s the future in South Hill? What do we look like in five to 10 years?” Hill said.

“. If you’ve got a plan for Greenbrier Mall, you’ve got to have a plan for South Hill.”

Ilinda Walden was inside her house late at night Jan. 22 when she smelled the strong odor of gas.

Hours had passed since evacuated residents were allowed to return home, and Walden was up tending to one of her young sons, who was sick.

She couldn’t figure out what the smell was, since she doesn’t have a gas line running to her house.

She stepped onto her front porch, where the smell of fuel “hit me in the face,” she said.

Worried for her two sons’ health, Walden called police. She said the responding officer told her he could smell the fuel too - from inside his car with the windows up.

Walden said she’s worried about the long-term health risks of living near the facility. She grows a vegetable garden every year but said she’s reconsidering.

“I’m afraid they’re going to have something in them,” she said.

Officials said fuel that leaked in last month’s spill was contained to a berm surrounding the tank at the Kinder Morgan facility. The fuel did not reach the neighborhood, storm drains or the Elizabeth River. Firefighters evacuated residents to a nearby community center for several hours, and animal rescuers cleaned jet fuel from about 60 geese and ducks. A few birds had to be euthanized. No people were hurt.

Still, it was the second significant spill in eight years, Councilwoman Ella Ward said.

“It’s a very, very serious situation,” she said.

To Hill, the spill felt more dangerous than the last one. It was jet fuel this time, he said, not fertilizer.

The history of South Hill has been intertwined with that of the tanks for a century.

According to the city, the first industrial tanks date to 1910, when the land was still Norfolk County.

Property records show some of the homes were built in the mid-1920s. But First Baptist Church of South Hill traces its origins back to 1883, Fire Chief Ed Elliott said.

The construction of Interstate 464 cut off the 11-acre neighborhood from the rest of South Norfolk in the late 1980s. Rosemont Avenue is the only road leading in and out. There’s an emergency access gate leading onto the highway, but someone from the fire department must unlock it first.

The streets in South Hill are prone to flooding, and the area’s industrial zoning prevents residents from building new homes or making additions.

“There’s no future back there,” Hill said.

Numerous attempts have been made to redevelop South Hill over the last decade.

The developer of a biodiesel plant proposed spending $5 million to revitalize the area in 2007, but plans for the plant fell through. The city’s economic development office tried to market the neighborhood to an industrial company in the middle of an economic downturn in 2008, but the program coordinator resigned.

Two months later, in November 2008, the liquid fertilizer tank collapsed, injuring four people.

The city asked for $2.5 million in federal funds in 2009 and $1 million in 2010 to turn the neighborhood into an industrial property once residents were relocated.

The requests were not approved.

Last year, the state - including the cities of Chesapeake, Norfolk and Newport News - applied for funding in a federal contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Part of Chesapeake’s proposal included $9.6 million for the voluntary acquisition of homes in South Hill, said Martha Burns, senior planner for the city’s Office of Emergency Management. Residents who wanted to sell their homes would have been relocated.

On Jan. 21, state and federal officials announced that Virginia had been awarded more than $120 million, including funding for two projects in Norfolk. None of Chesapeake’s proposals received any money.

Jet fuel leaked in South Hill the next day.

Deputy City Manager Wanda Barnard-Bailey said January’s spill has caused the city to redouble its efforts to help South Hill.

A project to purchase commercial and residential properties in certain areas of South Norfolk - including South Hill - has already been approved in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for 2017-2021. The project sets aside $2 million to buy commercial properties and $1 million for residential ones.

Purchasing homes from all homeowners who want to sell would cost about $9.6 million.

Barnard-Bailey said city officials will meet with the state Department of Housing and Community Development next month to discuss possible funding assistance. City leaders hope to use local, state and federal funding to give residents options, including possible relocation, she said.

“We want to make sure that people are safe,” Barnard-Bailey said. “That’s the whole intent of what we want to do.”

Hill, the civic league leader, said 95 to 98 percent of homeowners want to leave the neighborhood. A few don’t want to abandon homes that have been in their families for generations.

Some residents said selling the homes on their own seems like an improbable task. Walden said she’s made numerous improvements since buying her house in 2012, but the value continues to go down.

“Who in their right mind would give me $80,000 for this house?” she said.

Larry and Sandra Whitehurst have lived in South Hill for more than 30 years. They tried to sell their house several years ago, but there were no buyers after six months. The home’s location near the tanks makes it a difficult sale, they said.

If the city or a developer offered to buy the home, the Whitehursts said they’d be interested.

“I wish they would do it,” Larry Whitehurst said.

Hill said the civic league is reaching out to state delegates. The city can’t let its efforts to help the neighborhood die, he said.

“Because we’re dying back there at the same time.”

Pilot researcher Jakon Hays contributed to this report.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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