The Northampton Board of Supervisors met two times this week, Monday and Tuesday to hash out issues surrounding the proposed zoning changes, and the lingering obligation to the USDA debt. Both issues are unique, yet each has the potential to create a fair amount of discomfort for the citizens of the county. Supervisor Hogg could not attend due illness.
County staff was on hand to provide a presentation and some guidance regarding ‘effective land use zoning’. The staff presentation noted that the pillars of effective land use zoning encompass whether the use is legally allowable, and is the most profitable use. Analysis (bulk land) indicates that for Northampton, agriculture is still considered the best, most prime use. Residential bulk land, according staff, is currently not in demand. Given that, farming is considered the most profitable use, even if the parcel is zoned residential. Supervisor Hubbard questioned whether agricultural land would be more valuable if it were zoned residential; the staff responded that it would not, that the assessed value is a snapshot in time, and the value is solely based on market value at that time.
An intensive poultry operation, as was noted by Supervisor Hubbard ‘something that has been a great concern’, was moved to the top of the agenda. “I would like to put this to rest,” Hubbard said. According to a staff report from Melissa Kellam, due to implementation of the Right to Farm Act, the county cannot prohibit poultry houses, and since they are considered an acceptable use, they also do not require a special use permit. However, they can implement reasonable performance standards to mitigate noise, odor and water pollution contaminants. The county cannot make the performance standards so rigid and unachievable that it would eliminate the use entirely in an Ag district.
“So, the county, even if we wanted to, cannot outlaw poultry operations?” asked Hubbard.
“No, not in an Agriculture district,” responded Kellam.
“It has been allowed thus far, but it has not been conducive for it,” Hubbard said.
“That is correct,” said Kellam. “The county can use performance standards, but they are already ready highly regulated by DEQ.”
Using the county’s Geographic Information System, Charles McSwain provided an in depth look at the current poultry operations in Northampton as well as Accomack. Due to setbacks, and the amount of acreage that would be required to open a profitable operation (up to 11 chicken houses), there is actually not much land left to work with. According to staff analysis, there are only 9 parcels in the entire county that could handle this use.
After discussion, the Board agreed to keep current standards in place. “This is a big hassle, over and done with in a positive way,” said Hubbard.
Over the last several months, the Board has received many complaints and concerns regarding the elimination of Town Edge districts as part of the proposed zoning. According to staff, even as the county controls Town Edge, relative to uses, they do not “permit much of anything.” As the Comprehensive Plan encourages cooperation between the county and town, staff noted that Town Edge was a good way to accomplish this. The Supervisors accepted staff recommendations, and decided to keep Town Edge as part of the proposed zoning ordinance.
In the late 1990s, the county accepted three grants, one from the USDA, and two from RDA (Rural Development
Administration), all for the creation of the Sustainable Technology and Industrial Park in Cape Charles. When the county sold the STIP, the USDA claimed that they were in violation of the grant agreement, and had to pay back all $1.7 million dollars. After some negotiations, that figure was knocked down to $599,734.80.
In May, after some discussions with the USDA, Administrator Katie Nunez sent a letter to Peggy Jones of the USDA stating that the county, “Desperately wants to find a productive way to spend the funds in a productive way that is acceptable to your agency as an effective way to avoid what would be a devastating financial loss to the county.” Nunez went on to say that money for a new high school was an “urgent and fundamental need”, and that the debt obligation could severely damage those efforts.
The reply from the USDA was that it would forgive the debt if the county could come up with a suitable project(s) to cover the $599,734.80. However, the county only has until June 17, 2016 to find and submit a suitable project for USDA approval. Failure to do so would mean the county would have to repay the full amount of the loan ($599,734.80). Possible projects include new laptops for teachers, additional school buses and EMS and sheriff vehicles, as well as new Prometheus boards for the classrooms, and additional generators.
Construction projects were ruled out due to the fact that they probably could not be completed in time to meet the June 2016 deadline.