This letter was sent by Kenneth Dufty of Wardtown to the Northampton County Planning Commission as commentary on the 2018 proposed re-write of the Comprehensive Plan.
As you well know, from 2004-2009 Northampton County residents, local elected leaders, business owners, and investors participated in the drafting of a new Comprehensive Plan. The process has been called one of the most inclusive and indeed exhaustive planning efforts ever undertaken in the Commonwealth.
Experts were hired (required by code) and workshops, focus groups, town hall meetings, written surveys, public hearings, and committees were formed to add input and capture the long range vision stakeholders held for the economic, environmental, and natural resource future of the county. Once adopted, a Comprehensive Plan is to serve as a template for future investment and
development for a period of 20 years (as admitted on page 5 of the current “draft” plan proposing to replace the 2009 Comp Plan). It is not intended to be rewritten every 5 years, but Virginia Code merely requires it be “updated” every 5 years to include demographic and transportation trends that may or may not be needed to be revisited to keep the current 20 year plan relevant and accurate.
Before the ink was even dry on what Mike Chandler (planning guru in the Commonwealth and the gentleman who trains all Planning Commissioners before they are certified) has called the best Comprehensive Plan in the Commonwealth, the then-Chairman of the BOS and apparently a handful of real estate magnates and opportunists who were not happy with the goals and visions of the majority began to rewrite the 2009 Comprehensive Plan to apparently more closely reflect their personal and private desires. This band was formed by the BOS and was named the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) chaired by Bill Parr.
Over the next 4 years, their unilateral attempt to run roughshod over the will and desire of the majority has reportedly cost taxpayers of the county over $750,000, not including staff time and advertising costs associated with this ongoing attempt over the last 2 years. It has been estimated by some that this ongoing assault on our long range vision for this great county has cost taxpayers
over $1,000,000-over a 5 year period at the same time when the Chairman of the current Board of Supervisors repeatedly bangs his gavel (and rightfully so) declaring that this county needs more revenue for projects such as education, infrastructure, salaries, and services.
After what has been called one of the most divisive periods in the last three decades and perhaps longer, the November 2015 election was called by many as the pivot point in tipping the scales either in favor of staying the course with the 2009 Comprehensive Plan or perhaps down shifting and charting a new course that dramatically steered clear of the goals and visions in the existing plan.
Indeed, then Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Richard Hubbard ran a vigorous campaign against Spencer Murray, his challenger. Hubbard ran on a platform that conformed to the CPAC desires, and Murray ran on a platform that mirrored the will of the majority- one that was much more inclusive regarding public input on decisions that would affect our collective future. Similarly, Exmore’s Robert Duer ran to replace then-Supervisor Larry Trala who was another supporter of changing our zoning ordinance to reflect CPAC’s unilateral plans to change our course of future development.
When the polls closed on that November, 2015 election, the results could not be interpreted as anything other than an overwhelming mandate to reject CPAC’s and Willie Randall’s plans to override the 2009 Comprehensive Plan, and Murray and Duer were elected and serve to this day.
A similar contest played out in the November 2017 election where the former Planning Commissioner, Jacque Chatmon ran for the Board of Supervisors. Note that Chatmon was an avid supporter of the changes that the CPAC was proposing, and actually served as the Chairwoman of the Planning Commission before resigning earlier this year. Her opponent in that pivotal election was John Coker who ran on a more balanced, centrist platform of reasoned development which more reflects the tenets and cornerstones of the 2009 Comprehensive Plan. Note that when the ballots were counted after the polls closed, the results mirrored those that were cast in the 2015 contest where the same issues were core to the debate and Supervisor Coker now serves his constituents in a manner consistent with sound economic development and spending policies.
In short, in two separate elections in the same number of years, the citizens of Northampton County in three different districts have turned out at the polls in great numbers to support and reaffirm their confidence in our 2009 Comprehensive Plan, and there is no reason to believe the vast majority have changed their mind since then, especially as we all see the growth and excitement that this county is enjoying now as a result of the very vision and goals expressed in that plan.
II. Specific Comments on the Proposed Draft Plan
This ongoing attempt to reshape Northampton County into something it was never meant to be should never have gotten off the ground. It’s goals and visions nearly identically match the 2014-2015 zoning fiasco perpetrated by the majority members of the same Planning Commission, calling for; high density development of our waterfronts; commercial and industrial development around incorporated towns and along the Route 13 corridor; paving over of the only permeable soils that recharge our sole source aquifer; encouraging “by right” development in which no notice is given to adjacent landowners on future projects; creation of Planned Unit Developments (where anything goes); and many other arbitrary changes.
It seems the only justification for the changes being proposed to our protective 2009 Comprehensive Plan are based on a 6 year-old bogus phone survey which was funded by the National Association of Realtors that, in actuality, was meaningless, baseless, and nothing more than a “push poll”. This dubious “phone survey” asked questions of the respondents such as “do you think Northampton County needs more jobs?” and “do you think Northampton County needs more revenue?”.
The CPAC( created in 2012 by Willie Randall and other BOS members) and supporters consisting of Bill Parr, Pat Coady, Billy Moore, Bill Payne, Butch Bailey and others) took those answers and twisted them into an unrecognizable endorsement for their private plans and desires including: Planned Unit Developments (even rejected by Accomack County after a 2008 adoption of the
same) [page 25]; clustered housing in conservation areas [page 26], elimination of Hamlets (currently 36 in Northampton County) [page 27,36], designating them now as “Villages” with increased density and open endorsement of industrial and commercial uses where they are not allowed now; loosening of “regulations an restrictions” on commercial development along the only permeable soils we have to recharge our Yorktown aquifer known as the Route 13 corridor and instead recommending “best management practices” which is a surrogate for storm water retention ponds which DO NOT allow recharge shortly after they are dug [page 19,34]; increasing density in Town Edge districts from one unit per 2 acres to 5 houses per acre [page 30]; and many other changes including dismissing entrepreneurial small business start-ups as a “sign of econonic problems” (page 52,53) that are totally alien and detached from the mandate adopted by the vast
majority of residents who participated and were included in the 5 year process that went into the drafting of that all-inclusive 2009 Comprehensive Plan.
III. Competitiveness Assessment Study
After several years of polarizing debate between the same perpetrators of this proposed draft Comprehensive Plan and the majority of residents who were defending their work on the laudable 2009 Comprehensive Plan, in the spring of 2014 a decision was made by the Board of Supervisors to spend $6,700 to hire Investment Consulting Associates from Massachusetts to recommend steps and methods to attract new business and grow revenues in Northampton County. The report by this independent firm was released in July, 2014 and is entitled “Competitiveness Assessment Study”. But rather than recommending the changes that were being proposed then, and are being perpetrated upon us now by the Planning Commission and the (now disbanded) CPAC, the study indeed mirrored the long range visions embodied in the 2009 Comprehensive Plan, In fact, the new draft Comprehensive Plan being spoon fed to the taxpayers of this unique peninsula seems to directly rebuke the recommendations of the 2014 Competitiveness Assessment Study which warned against encouraging new industrial parks (like the failed STIP in Cape Charles which was a classic fleecing of our county coffers) and high density development (seeing there are nearly 7,000 vacant properties available in the county now). The study also warned that our sole source aquifer is our primary asset and over-pumping of that resource only invites salt water intrusion (our freshwater “bubble” floats on saltwater, and as we overpump, the freshwater is replaced by saltier reserves lapping at our coasts) the death knell for our sustainable future.
The Competitiveness Assessment Study charts a course for economic development that is sustainable, organic, and preserves and enhances the qualities of this lower Eastern Shore that attract investors and encourages our real estate tax base to grow. Simply put, people invest in this county not because we are Virginia Beach or Ocean City, but because we are not. The results and recommendation of this study are readily available on the Northampton County Planning Department website and stand in stark contrast to the draft Comprehensive Plan being perpetrated on the residents once more. Note this study, the only “expert” and independent input available for inclusion into the planning process underlying this instant effort, was only given cursory mention in the draft plan.
Rather than suggesting we change our current zoning ordinance or our Comprehensive Plan to reflect positions contrary to our 2009 adopted plan, the Competitiveness Assessment Study emphatically rejected many if not all the changes that are being proposed by the Planning Commission now. In fact, the study reaffirmed that our economic future hinges on the fact that we are one of the most protected counties east of the Mississippi and that indeed, as David Kabler from Blue Heron Realty will testify, is an asset that has immeasurable value and worth. The study recommends, at the top of the list, that we embark on an aggressive marketing campaign to showcase and highlight the fact that Northampton County is a place in which you can invest where you can enjoy fishing, the arts, farming, aquaculture, open space, bird watching, hiking, shopping, restaurants, world class hotels, state parks, fishing, kayaking, clean air and uncongested highways, and other attractions that invite visitors to come back and eventually invest in this county’s predictable future like many of us have.
The Town of Exmore, under the leadership of our Town Manager Robert Duer and the Town Council, took this advice to heart and hired Clarice MacGarvey as an event coordinator and marketer to promote our town, its events, and its attractions. Her annual salary is a tiny fraction of the money we wasted hiring Charles McSwain as the county’s economic developer in 2013. But that
investment in Ms. MacGarvey and follow through on the recommendation of the the Competitiveness Assessment Study, has paid off in spades.
The Town’s events such as Shakespeare in the Park,. Concerts, Oyster roasts, car shows, art fairs and other special events attracts people from all over the Shore.
Our storefronts are nearing 100 percent occupancy and all of the merchants are enjoying an uptick in retail sales that are vibrant, new and welcome.
We recommend that Northampton County Planning Commission adopts the same template as Exmore and retain the services of a marketer and launch an exhaustive and inclusive campaign that highlights our pristine natural resources and recreational opportunities and build upon the successes that are now the very fruit from the seeds that were planted in our hallowed 2009 Comprehensive Plan.
IV.CONDEMNATION OF SMALL BUSINESS AND ENTREPRENEURIAL START UPS IS A PRIME EXAMPLE WHY THIS DRAFT PLAN SHOULD BE REJECTED OUT OF HAND. See pages 52-53.
Many who have read this draft Comprehensive Plan that is once again being perpetrated upon the residents and businesses of Northampton County without a mandate from the majority of Northampton County businesses and residents have concluded that its primary purpose is to make more waterfront, commercial, and industrial real estate available so that real estate agents privately invested in this industry can make more money and enjoy more sales.
It is clear that real estate agents wishing to grow their own revenues at the expense of our rural quality of life and in direct contrast to our revered 2009 Comprehensive Plan see the recent explosion of start up entrepreneurial businesses as a threat to their private plans as there is little room for them to profit from these small business expansions-many of which rent or lease existing
formerly vacant storefronts.
It is simply incredible that this sentiment finds its way into this draft Comprehensive Plan and even more incredible that the authors of this plan have the audacity to put their condemnation of new start up businesses in print.
To wit, page 52 of the draft plan argues that new start up businesses in Northampton County (over 30 in the last year, with 13 alone in Cape Charles and 5 in Exmore in the last 4 months) are a “sign of economic problems in that they may be involuntary because there are no jobs.” And the next page in this draft argues that the majority of these start ups are owned by retirees who are merely finally realizing their dream of opening up a business, calling them “hobby” businesses that may compete with more viable and productive businesses.
Obviously the authors feel that these small, vibrant, and exciting entrepreneurial businesses springing up like wildflowers throughout the entire county may infringe upon their ability to market and profit from the sale of the commercial property they are attempting to create using this unwelcome plan as their method and tool to grow their own personal revenues at the county’s expense.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents over the last 6 years have spent a good portion of their lives, resources and effort fighting these repeated attempts to unilaterally reshape our future to meet their own private needs.
It is nearly surreal that nearly two and indeed three years after a contested election that overwhelmingly validated the fact that Northampton County residents reject attempts to rezone and reformat this county into a surrogate of Virginia Beach or Ocean City (as admitted by then County Administrator Katie Nunez in the fall of 2013), that we again have to come to the front lines to turn back yet another renewed attack on our rural quality of life and sustainable future. The prime mover of this desperate second bite by the Planning Commission and small band of privateers seems to be fueled by hand-wringing by CPAC members and friends that Northampton County needs “more revenue” by allowing high density development on our agricultural lands and waterfronts, and on top of our prime aquifer recharge area.
But in reality, as the American Farmland Trust and other studies on the effect of residential development concludes, the more that farmland and vacant land is rotated into residential development, the more services that are required from municipal government. Crops and grasses do not need schools, emergency services, health care, social services, public safety support, or infrastructure (sewer and water). Corn and Soy do not require state and county roads down their rows, street lights, road signs, and ditch maintenance.
They also do not need local, county or state government with their lavish administrative complexes to make decisions for them on growth and care, nor do they need regional jails or failed industrial parks such as have been the case in this county In fact, various studies conclude that for every real estate tax dollar paid by owners of open space, conservation, or agricultural land, in return that land only requires less than $0.50 of state, county, and local services. But if you landscape that same parcel and place a home on it, the average new residence requires well over $1.20 in services. In fact, if Mr. Parr’s theory that developing our waterfronts, our Hamlets, and the farm fields will indeed generate more revenue for this county was legitimate, Virginia Beach with its wall-to-wall commercial, industrial, and residential development would be enjoying a tax rate significantly lower than ours…if not nearing zero. But that is not the case, as their general tax rate is $1.00 per $100 of assessed value and escalating to $1.45 per $100 of assessed value in the Central Business District South (high density commercial).
Northampton County’s tax rate is $0.83 per $100 of assessed value, and would be arguably higher if agricultural, waterfront and conservation property is developed in a manner proposed by the Planning Commission in the 2018 draft Comprehensive Plan.
It is time that we end this Fankenstein-like planning process that has torn this county apart for at least the last 5 years, agree to merely incorporate updated demographic and transportation data into the existing 2009 Comprehensive Plan and move on with the task at hand. And that task exactly mirrors the recommendations and findings of the Competitive Assessment study and charts a
course to a bright and exciting future on every level.