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Archived News

Suffolk tries to force sale of homes for development

The Virginian-Pilot
September 18 , 2006
By Aaron Applegate

SUFFOLK — City officials want to demolish the 100 block of Morgan St. to make way for part of a 17-acre urban redevelopment project.

The people living in the rundown homes agree they aren’t worth saving. However, that doesn’t mean the plan is off to a smooth start.

The city has acquired all but six Morgan Street properties needed to start The Fairgrounds project. Yet the man who owns the remaining real estate – an 82-year-old accountant who is one of Suffolk’s biggest landlords downtown – is standing in the way.

After months of negotiations broke down, the city’s redevelopment and housing authority last week filed legal paperwork to force Frank Sheffer to sell those six properties plus four others the city needs for the project. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Sheffer, who plans to fight the city, won’t talk, and neither will housing authority officials.

The people who rent Sheffer’s houses on Morgan Street just behind the Planters peanut factory have something to say.

“We’re hoping the city will take his stuff,” said Lisa Sonnie, a Morgan Street tenant of Sheffer’s for seven years. “He really needs to get what he can while the gettin’s good. It’s time for Mr. Sheffer to go ahead and make a deal.”

Sonnie and other tenants said the houses are in desperate need of repair. They pointed out leaky roofs, broken windows, wobbly staircases and peeling paint.

“Let me tell you the truth,” said Mary Brock, a nine-year tenant, who said she pays $275 a month to rent the first floor of a house. “All of them need to come down.”

Renters said with the help of housing authority officials, who already have relocated nine families for the project, they’ll find another place to live.

City zoning reports show officials have cited Sheffer’s Morgan Street properties with numerous violations, including cracked foundations and trash-filled yards infested with field rats.

Sheffer’s attorney, Charles M. Lollar, an eminent domain specialist, said his client will sell for the right price.

Sheffer is trying to sell in one big deal all of his 80 Suffolk properties, which include those on Morgan Street.

“It’s all about what’s fair,” Lollar said. “That’s the bottom line. He is trying to reach some middle ground with the city. It’s just a sit-and-waittype situation.”

Neither side would say what price has been offered.

The price the city paid for some other Morgan Street homes in The Fairgrounds project was about $75,000.

Negotiations with Sheffer could hold up The Fairgrounds project, said Jeryl Phillips, project manager.

The 69-home first phase must now be broken up into two parts to work around Sheffer’s properties, which means creating two subdivision plans, instead of one, and getting two sets of plans approved by the Planning Commission.

“We’re moving forward, and phase one is going to accomplish a lot,” Phillips said. “I just could have accomplished a lot more.”

On Thursday, a repairman was working on one of Sheffer’s Morgan Street properties.