A residential development in the city with homes that have brick and vinyl siding and small front lawns looks like any other middle-class community.
It’s called New Port at Victory, and it’s near the Tidewater Community College campus and the Bide-A-Wee golf course.
But there’s something unusual about this place.
In recent months, the board of New Port’s homeowners’ association has been filled with members who have connections to the top of Portsmouth’s political food chain. And some don’t even live in the development.
There’s Paige Cherry, the Portsmouth Treasurer, and Kenyette Battle, wife of city councilman Paul Battle. And then there’s Seth Woodard, a cousin of councilman Christopher Woodard, and the board’s president, Denise Key, who is a former employee of state Sen. Louise Lucas and touts their personal friendship.
Neither Cherry nor Battle live in the community of more than 460 residents, according to a letter from the HOA’s own president.
So the question: Why has the five-person board been loaded with people who have ties to Portsmouth’s political heavyweights?
None of the board members are talking, but residents think the answer has something to do with the city’s new casino, which is being built about a half-mile from New Port.
And some residents are considering a hostile takeover to get control of the board, which they feel has gone rogue.
Cherry and Battle began their terms Aug. 18, according to HOA records. Key was elected last August. It’s unclear when Woodard joined the board.
When the HOA informed New Port residents of the new appointees, “everybody was like, when did this happen? What’s the Portsmouth Treasurer doing here?” said Yarrum Bland, 49, who has lived in the development for about 15 years.
New Port resident Denise Green, 58, wonders why the new members would want to spend their time on this board when they don’t live there or are busy with other political commitments.
“I really don’t understand what their interest would be,” said Green, an elementary school principal. “The only thing I know is that there’s a huge casino being built within walking distance of our homes.”
Bland’s theory is that if investors start buying homes in the neighborhood because of the new casino, the new board members can have some sort of oversight.
Resident Wayne Wright, 34, thinks the new members’ appointment violates the development’s articles of incorporation, which specify that board members need to be elected by property owners for two-year terms.
Though Key has defended the lack of elections, she also stated that the appointments will only be for one year, with an election in 2023. That contradicts a previous HOA letter, which said the new appointees would serve for two years.
Until 2018, Key was a human resources manager for Lucas Lodge, which provides residential facilities for intellectually disabled adults. It is owned and operated by Lucas and her daughter, councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke.
Lucas, who pushed for a casino in Portsmouth in the legislature for years, could not be reached for comment.
When Key ran for the presidency of the board in the summer of 2021, she stressed her political connections.
“I’m full of knowledge and personal contacts/resources with the City of Portsmouth,” she wrote in a Facebook post from June 2021, citing her friendship with Lucas, among other things.
The Pilot attempted to interview each board member, but they did not respond to messages or declined to comment.
Reached by phone, Key referred questions to Jeffery Nuckolls, the board’s attorney.
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to speak with you,” she said, then hung up.
Nuckolls, a law partner of Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, said in an email that he, the board and HOA staff declined to comment.
Battle did not respond to two messages left on a voicemail that stated the number belonged to Paul and Kenyette Battle. She also did not reply to messages given to a staffer at Tranquility Manor, Paul Battle’s business.
Paul Battle also did not respond to requests for comment.
Cherry is on medical leave and was unavailable for comment, a Portsmouth city staffer said. That staffer said Cherry was aware a reporter had requested an interview.
Board director Seth Woodard did not respond to messages left with his wife and another number listed for him.
His cousin, Councilman Chris Woodard, said he didn’t know Seth was on the board.
When he learned that Battle and Cherry also were on the board, he said, “Oh my gosh” and laughed.
But Woodard dismissed the idea that the politically connected people on the board have something to do with the casino.
It’s unclear exactly how involved the new board members are in making decisions and running the development. The board held a recent meeting on Zoom, but a Pilot reporter was not granted access.
However, The Pilot obtained an hour-long portion of the meeting that was recorded by a resident.
Battle attended the meeting but did not speak in the hour reviewed by The Pilot. Cherry was not at the meeting. Key noted that he was absent due to major surgery. Seth Woodard spoke for less than a minute near the end and encouraged residents to reach out to him.
Aside from the surprise appointments of Battle and Cherry, the HOA faced criticism for hiring the company of Key’s daughter to provide security.
The business, K & J Armed Security, was created on April 29 shortly before it started working in the development in May, according to state records and an announcement to residents.
“I was just told to put in a bid” by someone at the office at the beginning of the year, Key’s daughter, Denesha Key, said in a phone interview.
She added that the HOA knew about her business “‘cause I’m a deputy sheriff and I’m always out there,” not because of her mother’s position as head of the board.
But Key is no longer a Portsmouth sheriff’s deputy, said Col. Marvin Waters, the department’s undersheriff. She was a deputy from September 2021 to March of this year, Waters said.
The company also is not certified with the state as a private security business, despite Key’s claim to the contrary.
Denesha Key declined to divulge the amount of her contract with the HOA.
Residents haven’t received that information either. Wright said he tried to get copies of all contracts going back to September as well as other documents, but was told it would be expensive.
The board’s secrecy has made the situation between the community and Denise Key worse, said Green.
A group of residents has been meeting to discuss the situation. They’ve done research and talked about taking back control of the board. And one property owner, Crystal Sherman, is organizing a petition to call a special meeting to remove the board members.
Resident David Cumbo doesn’t think his neighbors will win their battle because they don’t fully understand the political dynamics behind the situation and don’t have the ammunition to fight the well-connected board members. Still, he said, something needs to be done.
“We need to warn people. People are buying homes here thinking they’re buying a piece of the American Dream and they’re not. It’s a piece of the American nightmare.”
Noble Brigham, firstname.lastname@example.org