Where Old Sit-Coms Meet Green Ambition
Va. Inn Combines Retro, Environmental Themes

By Scott Harper
(Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot
Saturday, October 11, 2008

ONLEY, Va. -- Maybe it's the homemade windmills spinning on the balcony. Or the golf-cart batteries that power the kitchen. Or maybe it's the purple shag carpeting, the pink shutters, the "Dick Van Dyke Show" furniture, the leopard-print paint on the dining room floor or the gold Rolls Royce in the gravel driveway.

Take your pick. But for plenty of reasons, the advertising slogan declaring Neptune Vacation Suites "the most unique destination on the Eastern Shore!!" might not be hyperbole after all.

Thomas "Spess" Neblett, the owner and creator of this eclectic refuge in the quiet little town of Onley (pop. 450), said his mission is simple:

"For the people who come here, I want them to say 20 years later, 'Hey, remember that fun and kooky place we stayed at on the Eastern Shore? Wasn't that something?' "

He concedes that Neptune is not for everyone. There is no central air conditioning, no hot breakfast buffets, no panoramic views. Plus, Neblett lives downstairs with his dog, a white bichon named Billy.

"It's not some Victorian B&B," he says. "It's quirky, retro -- and that's the point."

Neblett himself is as colorful as his renovated home/inn.

He has been a piano player for Colonial Williamsburg and on cruise ships, restores antique trailer homes and resells them, owns four cars, paints, writes music, dabbles in real estate and makes his own biodiesel fuel (called Gassux) that he sells to local farmers, fishermen and uses himself.

More recently, Neblett has started instructing people -- "for free, really, though I hope they stay a couple nights" -- on how to buy alternative energy sources and install them in their homes and businesses, just as he has done at Neptune.

Here's his homespun recipe for wind turbines, for example:

Buy motors intended for treadmills. Shape blades from PVC pipe. Bolt them to a Swiss-cheesy base bought on the Internet. Wire up the makeshift turbine atop tall steel tubes.

After that, run thin power lines down the tubes to a receiving battery and converter box inside the house. And voila! -- green energy.

At the Neptune, wind helps power kitchen appliances, lighting and electronics on the first floor. All for $100 or so per turbine. He has five and said he wants to put up more.

"I like to think of myself as a Renaissance man, like Thomas Jefferson," Neblett said during a tour recently, "but also with a dash of Mr. Greenjeans."

He was referring to the fictional handyman and neighbor of Captain Kangaroo, a children's TV character of the 1960s and '70s.

"I couldn't stand Captain Kangaroo," Neblett added, "but I loved Mr. Greenjeans. He could do everything and anything. And was so cool!"

Neblett makes lots of references to old sit-coms, in conversation and in business. When he first laid eyes on the Neptune in the late 1990s, then a broken-down apartment building, "I thought about the Shady Rest Hotel, you know, from 'Petticoat Junction.' "

The three suites for rent in the renovated home all have sit-com themes. One is called Honey, I'm Home, after "I Love Lucy." Another is named the Travel Suite and is modeled after the set of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

And the third, which encompasses the entire top floor, is the Game Show Suite. It includes polka-dotted walls, photos and pictures of old game shows, purple ceilings, brightly painted floors, and a tall bureau signed with faux signatures of former guests on "Hollywood Squares."

"Loved that show," Neblett said. "Didn't you?"

The town of Onley, on the seaside of Accomack County, an old railroad stop struggling to find itself in the 21st century, was not so sure about its new resident and funky business when Neptune opened in 2005.

There was talk about Neblett needing a zoning variance for his "inn," and perhaps not granting him one.

His answer, he said: "A big, everybody-in-town-is-invited cocktail party." He also contacted his brother-in-law, a lawyer with a background in zoning issues.

After all that, Neblett said, the variance was approved and Neptune became part of an ongoing attempt to reinvigorate Main Street. "The attitude now seems to be, 'Whatever it takes to get things moving again, so be it,' " he said.

Neblett became intrigued by green energy, in part, because of higher utility rates and a downturn in the economy.

"We absolutely have to get off this addiction to oil and fossil fuels," he said. "It's killing us."

So this year, he started researching, and in June solar panels went up, the wind turbines were placed on the balcony, and he started brewing biodiesel from waste oils and grease collected from local restaurants. Neblett pays 10 restaurants for their grease, which he then dewaters and filters and later sells in recycled pickle barrels as Gassux.

He describes Neptune as "the only solar- and wind-powered accommodation on the Eastern Shore." Which is partially true; his inn is partially powered by those renewable sources, though the suites remain tied to traditional electricity.

Neptune ( http://www.neptuneva.com) is not the only "green hotel" on the Eastern Shore, though. Hoping to take advantage of increasing environmental awareness, more than a dozen inns, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts now participate in the Virginia Green program, in which they pledge to reuse, recycle and reduce, according to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission.

Neptune is not officially one of them, though. Then again, it never was a conventional place.

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