On a cool night, with the ghouls and goblins poised to prowl on All Hallows Eve, citizens of Northampton instead filed into the auditorium at Northampton High School to listen and see firsthand, just what the candidates for this year’s election have to say. Milling about prior to the CBES candidate forum this Thursday night, was, as always, members of the County political spectrum. Members of the old guard, defenders of the land and water, and especially the Eastern Shore’s agricultural and rural heritage, were there, proper flannel and khakis, eager to find those favorable to AFDs and those, maybe not so much. The instantiated Left was there too, cloistered together in the front row, the standard-bearers of the not so New Radical Chic, which is the Northampton Democratic Dems (Committee). There would be no plenary sessions or caucus roundabouts, or enchanting wealth (not theirs) distribution schemes, which more than likely left them with some level of hemorrhoidal discomfort. The real hardcore, The True, was on hand to keep an eye on things that really matter – the proposed zoning, the schools, the dismantling of the Chesapeake Bay Act, and most importantly, the barbarians at the gate (intensive farming operations).
The undercard for the night’s events included Charlene Gray vs. Bonney Wilson (Commissioner of Revenue), Rodney Walker vs. Nancy Proto (School Board at-Large), and Graham Dunham vs. Bruce Jones (Commonwealth Attorney), but the main event was for County Supervisor seats (Richard Hubbard vs. Spencer Murray for District 4 and Robert Duer District 5 – Gwen Cummings-Thompson, who opposes Duer, was not present). Although the event had the potential to be a UFC cage match, in the end, it was more like a scene from the Teletubbies (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
Note: Having missed dinner to make the event, I could have gone for a big bowl of Tubbie Custard during one of the breaks to tide me over.
During opening remarks, the candidates attempted to provide a nutshell glimpse of their platforms as well as differentiate themselves from the field.
Robert Duer: “Over that last few months, we’ve heard a lot of political speak, and like you, I’m sick of it. I come to you not as a politician but as a businessman that loves Northampton. I would like to return responsible government to the citizens of our county.”
Spencer Murray: “I’m running because I believe Northampton needs new leadership, and direction. The citizens do not want more bureaucracy and red tape. They want their elected officials to analyze the issues and understand the consequences and then stand by their convictions. They want to trust their leadership to tell them the truth even when it hurts.”
Rick Hubbard: “Due to my business,for twenty plus years I have worked with people in Northampton and Accomack, dealing with them on a day to day basis, listening to what they need, what their dreams and desires are, and also how tough it is to make a living in Northampton County. My wife has taught in the public schools for twenty plus years, so that has also giving me an insight. We have three children that have graduated from the schools here.”
AFDs, which have been under scrutiny as of late, were posed to the candidates.
Murray: “I’ve always supported some form of land use taxation, but I also support AG/Forest Districts; now first of all, it is a Virginia program. When I first served on the board there was land use taxation, but it was a year to year program and developers could jump in and out year after one year. Our board decided that the program was not a real commitment to Agriculture and open space, and we switched to ag/ forest so land owners could apply and pay a fee, and then make a 10 year commitment to stay in the ag/forest district, as well as adhere to all the restrictions that go along with it. The question of fairness and whether it is a tax break for wealthy people is an interesting one. Agriculture is too important to our county.”
Hubbard: “AG and Forest is a ten year commitment and because of that, it shows that the land owner is making a serious commitment to keeping that land farmed and as open space. By doing that, you are saving the county money in terms of goods and services.”
Duer: “You won’t need to keep a clock on me. I’m a businessman so time is money. I’ll be brief, I support AG and Forest and the protection of open space. It is what makes Northampton the most beautiful spot on the earth. Our land and our forests are our heritage, our culture and our future.”
A question about the economic viability of the County was also posed–studies show that the Northampton is hampered by isolation. Since natural, rural and historical resources are its major assets, what should be done to promote economic development?
Duer: “Just to open the door doesn’t mean businesses will flock here. Poor schools, lack of workforce training, lack of high speed internet, and lack of healthcare. We must fix the fundamentals before we can succeed.”
Murray: “The first thing we have to do is rid ourselves of the thinking of the last 25 or 30 years, that says ‘if you build it they will come’. That kind of thinking led us to the Sustainable Technology Industrial Park which never achieved its potential, it also that led us to a $24 million dollar regional jail, which isn’t regional at all, its the Northampton jail running at half capacity and subsidized by millions of dollars from Northampton citizens. This kind of thinking also led us to spend tens of thousands of dollars on sewer pipe from Cape Charles that was going to be run out to vacant land. The property owners didn’t want it, and the only people that would benefit from it would be the Food Lion and McDonalds and whichever foreign entity owned the shopping center. The best way to promote economic development is to have a commitment from the investors first, then be sure the infrastructure is needed. We have a very difficult financial environment. But we do have many assets; our clean water, our beautiful landscapes, people come here because they want to be here.”
Hubbard: “One of the first things we have to do is work on the educational system. I believe its improving, but it has a ways to go, it has to get back to the blue ribbon days. We’ve got broadband that has been here for five years, but we are finally getting private service providers who are going to be able to get it the last mile, down into some of the necks, to the people where it’s necessary. That can open up lots of doors for individual businesses. We need to cash in on agricultural add on products, and our aquaculture products. Those are things we are growing on our own, we need to add more value to them so it will lead some of that money back into the county. The other thing that has come on is tourism, and that is a big thing in our economy. Tourism is a bright light, and we need to work on that, and also look at improving the salaries that go along with it.”
A question about the rezoning , and how its consequences could be increased density, was given to the candidates. Will tax revenue offset the cost of infrastructure services or will tax rates have to increase to meet the demands of community services?
Hubbard: “The proposed zoning and the consequences, we always hear that we are going to be overrun by development, but in the last 9 or 10 years, we have just seen the population decrease. We need an economic base to sustain us. We are seeing more retiring people moving here, they are coming here for the beautiful land, and they are coming with a strong pocket book. They have a disposable income. From my own experiences, when we first moved here, and we had three kids in the public schools, I’m sure we weren’t paying our fair share of taxes. But with the kids gone and the house we’re living in now, I’d like to think we’re paying more than our fair share. I guess the point, is if we’re going to have just low income housing, that is going to cost the county….people need to have the ability to move up also so they can pay more taxes if they are doing better.”
Murray: “I find it incredible that the Board of Supervisors has taken almost two years to rip apart the zoning and I’ve got just two minutes to talk about it. It is not ready for prime time. Zoning must do two things, first it must specify where activities in the community, such as industrial, commercial and so forth happens. This assumes that a bio-diesel plant is not next to a residence or an incinerator is not next to a school. The second thing a zoning ordinance must do is protect adjacent property owners rights through the special use permit process, and this process is being ripped apart. Without this process communities have no say if a right use is allowed next to them. During the next public hearing I hope we get to discuss intensive farming and concentrated animal feeding operations because according to the Planning Departments October 23rd memo, 41 of the possible 82 poultry houses could sited in District 4. I need an hour to possibly state my concerns. As was mentioned, zoning was not mentioned as an obstacle to economic development in any of the studies, I have never heard of anyone not coming to Northampton because of the zoning ordinance.”
Duer: “I’m a businessman not a politician, I’ll answer your question. Our Planning website states that services, such as community services can can cost $1.19 for every $1.00 of tax revenue collected. You would have to deduce that at some time in the future, taxes will have to be raised, as extra development climbs to $1.25 or $1.35, or $1.50, we have trouble balancing our budget now, and land taxes will not be able to fill that void, so sometimes, yes they are going to have to be raised.”
Citizens paid for a study to see how the county could become more business friendly, the Competitive Assessment Study, whose recommendations gave us a clear path to economic recovery. The candidates were asked what their opinions were on the study.
Hubbard, “I’m not sure I can tell you too much about it because I haven’t looked at it in the last couple of days. The County has been working and needs to continue to work to become more business friendly.”
Murray: “I believe the study is on the County website. The study asks us to emphasize our strengths, to look at what we have and to work through those strengths. We cannot go in pursuit of what we don’t have, at the expense and loss of what we do have. We have one of the most successful aquaculture industries on the East Coast, we have beautiful beaches, we have beautiful towns, we have culture, we have arts, we can be a very significant tourist destination. Don’t look for what you don’t have, manage what you do have.”
Duer: “I support the study, I think it hits the nail on the head.”
Commissioner of Revenue
The race for Commissioner of Revenue could not be a closer one. One would be hard pressed to find two more qualified candidates than Ms. Gray and Ms. Wilson. Both have many years’ experience working in the revenue office, both are certified masters, and both are truly well liked by the county. If there is a tiny edge, it would be that Ms. Gray presented her case a bit more fluidly, and she may have an edge on the technology side (has a degree from ITT Tech in programming). This one is a true toss-up, and no matter the outcome, the citizens will be the real winners here.
School Board – At Large
The race for the at-large spot on the school board provided more of a dichotomy. In one corner, you had Rodney Walker, who has been working in the schools for the last ten years. Walker’s approach has been hands on – he is the one responsible for bringing a world class robotics program to Northampton, where his team has matched up against many of the best robotics clubs in the world. Walker is also responsible for bringing a NASA based robotics program to Kiptopeke. In the other corner, Nancy Proto attacked the problems from a more intellectual, academic and research based methodology. Her knowledge of current research, and how she would apply that knowledge to our schools, was impressive. If there was a downside to Proto’s presentation, it was that she appeared, at times to be reading a research paper, whereas Walker tended to speak more passionately, like someone who has been in it, with firm boots on the ground. Both candidates did agree on one thing, that the problem of poverty is a major factor inhibiting the schools from excelling. “You can’t teach away poverty,” Proto said.
Although Garrett Dunham was well spoken, passionate and thoughtful, in the end he did not make a good enough case for replacing Bruce Jones as Commonwealth Attorney. From a County standpoint, there is no wrong answer here-both men would be great for the job. However, it was Jones’ long history of accomplishments as, not just the Commonwealth Attorney, but also his tenure as County Attorney, that won the day.