Jump-Off Joe homeowner faces hurdles in building dream home

PHOTO BY SHELBY WOLFE/Newport News-Times | The Jump-Off Joe neighborhood has been home to several failed housing development projects over the years, including a 1980 effort to build condominiums on tax lots that started collapsing and crumbling into the sea. Erosion has been a huge problem in the area, and many neighbors are concerned the construction of a new house north of the property pictured above will similarly be the latest victim of coastal erosion.

NEWPORT –– It’s a poetic, and perhaps fitting, allegory.

In the days of old, local legend has it, a Native American man named Joseph and an indigenous woman were running for their lives from another group of Indians in hot pursuit.

Getting to the western edge of the bluffs, they could run no more.

“Jump, Joseph,” the woman said to him.

And jump he did, falling to his death. The spot forever after was known as Jump-Off Joe.

The truthfulness of the legend itself is debatable. It is an ironic parable, however, of the developments and dreams that have similarly disappeared off the side of those ancient cliffs.

The latest chapter of the fraught history of Jump-Off Joe focuses on Bill Lund and his wife, Lisa, who just wanted to build their dream home overlooking the ocean on Spring Street.

But wrench after wrench was thrown into their plans — not least of which was the discovery of a an old county road, Jump-Off Joe Road, or County Road 500, which runs through their undeveloped property to the ocean.

The Lund family, as well as many city and county officials, did not know about the stretch of that road on the property. The long-unused county road didn’t prevent the Lunds from being issued the title on the land.

“I want to build my own home out there,” Lund said. “There’s only a few parcels of land that are buildable on the coast.”

The Lunds bought the plot last year and hopped through several hoops to start building their house, including hiring a geologist to assess the buildability of the site, filing paperwork with the city and drilling into the land to monitor erosion levels.

However, when the neighbors found out about the development on the property that provided access to the beach, they were worried their beach access would be taken away.

That wasn’t their only concern, however.  

“The applicant and his geotechnical advisers have failed to provide convincing evidence that the site is suitable for the proposed development,” wrote a neighborhood resident, Chris Schneller, to the city’s planning commission in September.

“We strongly believe the proposed development will have a negative impact on the public health, safety and welfare, endangers the street and neighboring homes,” read another email from neighbors Robert Earle, Teresa Amen, Mary Bauman and Nancy Luther in July.

History of collapse

Development in that neighborhood has been the source of much consternation to the homeowners and the city over the course of many years. One Newport couple tried to built condos in the 1980s south of Lund’s property, laying down concrete for a foundation that quickly started sinking as the ground underneath it collapsed and eroded away. The concrete foundation is still there, but the construction was never completed--the geologist associated with the project lost his license, and the couple behind the project declared bankruptcy.

That geologist, who years before the condominium development started, issued a report stating the Jump-Off Joe area should never be developed. He quickly reversed his previous opinion when he signed on to be the condo project’s geologist and said development in the area would, in fact, stabilize the land.

According to a 2006 story published by The Newport News-Times, the property went to the city after Richard and Barbara Anderson, the couple who tried to build the condominium, defaulted on $800,000 in loans.

The decades before the Anderson’s failed project saw significant land erosion, destroying homes built on and around Jump-Off Joe’s weakest lots. A 1,000-foot-long stretch of land 200 feet wide crumbled away in 1943, creating a giant gap between Sixth Street and Eleventh Street and destroying 15 homes. Close to 500 feet of land eroded between the 1860s and 2006.

Records of Jump-Off Joe Road date back to at least 1899. The road sat unused while the city grew and expanded. Over the years, the road is mentioned in city and county documents when the southern end of the road met the northern boundaries of the city in 1906. The city commissioned improvements to the road in the 1920s and tax lots were found to intersect with the road in the early ‘30s.

As a large stretch of Jump-Off Joe Road became Ocean View Drive in the 1930s and the county transferred ownership of the road to the city, homes sprang up around the road the city described at one time as “a road and horse trail.” Few, if any, modern residents knew of the existence of the road on what became the Lund’s property — aside from the fact that those who lived around the trail used the undeveloped land surrounding it to access the beach from their homes.

As Lund prepped the land for development, however, the neighbors saw their beach access in the crosshairs of a development they already viewed as sketchy.

“It is sad to see that someone wants to build on something that had been used by the public as a beach access for the neighborhood that I have lived in for the past 29 years,” said one neighborhood resident, Brent Bunker, in an email to Newport Community Development Director Derrick Tokos on July 27. “It seems that it would be an eyesore and doesn’t look like a stable area.”

The Lunds acquiesced to some of their neighbors wishes and agreed to provide a publicly-accessible path on the part of their property that comprises Jump-Off Joe Road, retaining a walking path from the neighborhood down to the beach.

“I’m giving up some of my property to put in a walking path,” Lund said. “We’re just trying to do everything by the book so the neighbors can have their safe walking path which I’m putting in for them.”

With the ground deemed stable enough to build on by Lund’s geotechnical engineers and a pending vacation of part of his property to the city to provide the neighbors access to the beach, Lund continues to hold out hope he can, in fact, build his dream.

“I’m a reasonable guy,” Lund said. “I just want to build a home.”

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