Backyard hens, urban trails, year-round school and increasing government accountability and transparency are a few topics Virginia Beach city council newcomer Jessica Abbott believes in. She’s also a mother to a one-year-old, plays clarinet and once toured in a ska band called Rude Zombie.
At 27, she is the youngest person in history elected to serve on Virginia Beach’s city council and she said she’s excited. Abbott is the first councilmember elected who beat an incumbent by more than five percent. Her $20,000 campaign was outspent five-to-one against her opponent and she will represent the Kempsville district beginning Jan. 1.
Legalizing backyard hens is something Abbott said she will focus on first as a new member of city council.
“Backyard hens is the reason I ran,” said Abbott in an interview. “Denver did it, New York City did it … there are lots of big cities that allow people to have hens in their backyard and we’re stuck in some backwards way of thinking that people can’t have eggs.”
Abbott is a certified FEMA flood insurance agent and said she knew the potential damage Hurricane Matthew could inflict on Virginia Beach long before it made landfall. She said the city needs a proper, thorough emergency plan to make sure people know where to go if they become homeless.
“It took too long to tell people to go to the rec centers. People didn’t know to go to Bow Creek or that it was even an option,” Abbott said. “We didn’t have a FEMA recovery center open at the Central Library until like three weeks after the hurricane happened. Those are all things we should have written on the city’s website.”
She also said the city should make sure canals and storm water runoffs are dredged, properly maintained and that the maintenance schedules should be published on the internet to keep the city accountable. When Abbott visited the Windsor Woods neighborhood, she said canals that should have been six to eight feet deep only measured to a few inches.
“I think the city did a good job to reacting to something they didn’t think could be a problem,” Abbott said. “You have to be prepared for the problem, not reacting to it.”
A new arena
Abbott isn’t for a new arena at the oceanfront because of the impact it will have on Seatack, a community she said is overly ignored.
“It’s going to jam [Seatack] roads, it’s going to take their property and it’s going to be a financial burden on them,” Abbott said. “To have a creation of low-paying jobs, but to impact a community that’s so rich in history is not right.”
She also said she doesn’t think an NBA team will come to Virginia Beach because of an arena.
“I don’t think that there are musical artists that will bypass The Scope or the coliseum to come play at the Oceanfront.,” Abbott said. “We don’t need a bigger music venue and I don’t think we can get the entertainment they think we can get.”
Abbott’s campaign advocated against a light rail extension to the Town Center because she said the city doesn’t have the population density to support it. Typically, cities with light rail have about 6,300 people per square mile, and Virginia Beach has about 1,600 people per square mile, she said.
To revamp public transportation, Abbott said there should be an increase in bus transportation, that buses should run on natural gas and even have Wi-Fi. She said another possibility would be to reach out to bigger companies about electric or autonomous buses.
“That technology is here, and if we embrace it, we can get ahead of it,” Abbott said. “That would attract millennials, don’t you think?”
Another idea Abbott has for public transportation is a network of urban trails that stretch across the city. It’s called the Virginia Beach Green Belt and Abbott said it could help economic development.
“If we utilize planned urban development where people actually owned a parcel of the path, or leased it from us so they could modify and maintain it, and it’s still public use, we could alleviate the tax burden,” Abbott said. “I don’t think you would be able to have that kind of growth and excitement that would happen if you had a train running down it every five minutes.”
Crowd sourcing engagement and criticism on social media is what Abbott said won her the election. She said a reason she ran is city council’s lack of active engagement with the public.
“My big pet peeve with council is that it meets during a work day,” Abbott said. “Do you know how hard it is to get from your 5 p.m. job to a 6 p.m. council meeting? Not to mention kids and a family on top of that … It’s not set up for people to be engaged.”
She said city council meeting should stream on Facebook so real-time engagement would be possible. This could give people who can’t attend meetings to access the live and electronically.
“What people liked about our campaign was not that we shared all of the same ideas, but that we shared them,” Abbott said. “Good ideas stand the test of criticism and bad ones should not.”
Abbott attended Princess Anne Middle School and Floyd. E. Kellam High School. As a product of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, she said a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job after graduation. After taking classes for a year at Tidewater Community College, Abbot said said she stopped going to manage her family’s insurance business.
“It really bothers me when I see fourth graders getting told they have to go to college,” Abbott said. “They should be thinking about what they want … what makes them happy and fulfills them and teachers should be guiding them based on that.”
Open access to alternative higher education is important to Abbott. She said vocational schools, trade schools and entrepreneurial programs could shift education’s focus to be more individual than collective.
“You’ve got to have education, you just don’t have to necessarily have a four-year education,” Abbott said. “We have to change the vehicle which we’re telling people they have to seek that education and higher knowledge.”
Abbott also said implementing year-round school would benefit the school system more than establishing full-day kindergarten would. But she said a combination of both might be best.
If school stayed in session year round, she says, students would still get a summer’s worth of days off, with constant education, engagement and less of a chance to forget information. Though she said it’s a school board issue, she hopes to help influence decisions they make.
“The local school system is important to me. I mean, I’m a product of it,” Abbott said. “I remember going to high school here, I remember going to middle school here.”