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301 West Freemason St.
Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: 757.622.5812
Fax: 757.622.5815
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Family of Watermen Prove You Can Stand Up to City Hall

The Johnsons can continue crabbing without worrying about the City of Portsmouth, Virginia trying to take their property and their livelihood.  The road to this newfound peace-of-mind has been anything but smooth for the three generations of Johnson men who make their living on the water. 

For 95 years, the Crab House has been located on Scotts Creek at Harrell Street.  The Johnson’s Crab House is the last remaining active crabbing operation in Portsmouth and the Johnsons among the last watermen.  In the spring of 2007 the Portsmouth City Council voted to condemn the Johnson’s property.  A variety of reasons for condemning the property were asserted, but the underlying circumstance was a promise from the City of Portsmouth to a developer of new homes across the street from the Crab House to turn the Johnson’s property into a park.

In the spring of 2008 it appeared to the Johnsons that the City would use imminently its power of eminent domain to take their property.  At that time the Johnsons sought legal advice and representation from the law firm of Waldo & Lyle, P.C.   While Waldo & Lyle prepared the Johnsons case for a possible eminent domain trial, the Johnsons took their case before the people of Portsmouth and the City Council.

On September 4, 2008 the Johnsons held a public rally, advertised with a full-page ad in the Virginian-Pilot and covered by local television stations, to draw attention to their cause.  Their rally drew some 200 people from the Tidewater region who came to support the Johnsons and private property rights.

On September 9, 2008, the Johnsons and seemingly all of those who attended their rally appeared in front of the Portsmouth City Council to contest the Council’s attempt to change the comprehensive plan and designate the Johnsons’ property for future use as a park, a last step before the property would be condemned.  The public comment portion of the evening’s meeting lasted some two and a half hours, with those speaking on behalf of the Johnsons outnumbering those against by a margin of 5:1. 

The overwhelming display of support, much from strangers who simply saw the Johnsons’ story on the news and felt compelled to make their opinions known, led the Council to delay its decision two-months to allow the Council to rescind its 2007 resolution to acquire the property by eminent domain. 

Vice Mayor William E. Moody noted that the Council’s earlier action amounted to using a “hand grenade to kill a fly” and refused to support a change to the comprehensive plan without the rescinding of the resolution authorizing eminent domain.  Mayor James W. Holley spoke out against the use of eminent domain in Portsmouth in no uncertain terms.  Councilman Charles B. Whitehurst also spoke out against taking the Johnsons’ property by eminent domain, though he had not been a part of the Council that had originally done so.

A change to the comprehensive plan requires the City Council to twice pass a resolution making the change.  On November 10, 2008 the Council voted 4-2 to amend the comprehensive plan to designate the Johnsons’ property for future acquisition and use as a park or open space. 
But on December 9, 2008 the City Council heard again from the Johnsons and voted 5-2 against the amendment to the comprehensive plan.  The Council’s action forestalls the future designation of their property for acquisition and use as a park.

Throughout the Johnsons’ struggle Waldo & Lyle stood by their side, providing the encouragement and support they needed to prevail.  Enjoying his defeat of the City’s attempts to take his property, Mr. John Johnson, the Johnson patriarch, said of Waldo & Lyle, “I’m so thankful for all of the support and advice in helping us stand up for our rights.”