Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Northampton Board of Supervisors was once again dominated by opposition to proposed changes to the county zoning ordinance. Where other meetings have focused on the issues such as losing the Bay Act protections on the seaside, Planned Unit Development inconsistencies, waste and incineration process, and even intensive poultry farming, this meeting focused on what some in the county feel is an innate racial bias woven into the text and metanarrative of the current document.
Janice Langley, secretary of the Northampton branch of the NAACP, addressed the board, “We the members of the branch of the Northampton NAACP are submitting this letter over the county’s proposal to re-write the 2009 zoning ordinance in an attempt to enact a completely new code; specifically, the NAACP is concerned about the proposed upzoning of lands in neighborhoods and parcels of land inhabited by the minority community. Have received complaints from members of the community and the NAACP chapter suggests that the zoning is unfair and targets the underprivileged black residents of Northampton county. After several investigations of these complaints it was concluded that land owned by members of the black community slated for up zoning from agriculture designation to residential use while adjacent property owned by neighboring white counter parts remain untouched. We remain neutral at this time that the board is not intentionally discriminating against the minority population. However, it appears the proposed zoning has a discriminatory propensity. Many not understand what the effect proposed zoning would have on their property, and the impact this change would have on their lives.”
Note: Despite the NAACP’s passionate appeal, some actual data may have been helpful in determining whether or not there is an actual trend, or whether the case of Mr. Kellam is an outlier. That is, what is the actual percentage of African American landowners that had property upzoned from AG to R1 or R3 vs. white landowners? Certainly, these types of allegations should be backed up by statistical analysis in order to be given serious consideration.
At the center of the controversy of whether or not black owned lands are being unfairly targeted by the proposed zoning is Wardtown’s Leo Kellam, whose rezoning letter set much of this protest in motion, “Y’all have a copy of the tax form up there. I bought property three years ago, it has a house on it, and it hasn’t been lived in in thirty years and they are charging me taxes on it. Several weeks ago I got a notice in the mail about the rezoning from agricultural to residential, my black neighbors next to me were rezoned to R3 too. Betty Smith me about the 19 uses you can’t do under residential that you can do under ag. I testified at the last meeting that it is discrimination against blacks because my white neighbor has land that has not been rezoned. I had a visit from Rick Hubbard and he advised me that I did not own the land, and he would take me to Eastville, to some lady that said my land doesn’t belong to me. And I told him she needed to be fired.”
Farmer Larry Jones of Nassawaddox, who has been growing organic produce on his plot of land for several years, also voiced conscerns that he might not be able to continue to grow and sell his crops, “I have a small commercial lot that is zoned agricultural and I bought it in 1986 and I have been doing organics there for over 20 years, and you are telling me that the new zoning is going to take my property and make it so I can’t raise crops? If I was a big farmer and an old farmer I could take all my land and put it in a tax shelter and not even worry about it. This is why this county is so far behind. We’re the poorest county in the state and all of a sudden everybody is looking for money.”
Zoning opponent Ken Dufty, also expressed concerns about how the zoning may effect agriculture, but unless land is “zoned as an agricultural district or classification” protections of the Right to Farm Act may no longer apply, “The minority community is here tonight, but I bet if you asked them to explain the new zoning I bet they couldn’t. I still can’t. I just learned from Charles that when you rezone from ag to residential you do lose nineteen uses. So Leo, who is planning his crops for next year, unless he does it by the end of this year loses the ability to sell his crops. You didn’t tell him that and you didn’t say that in your letter. There is a huge disparity in the way this zoning is being proposed, Leo’s property, the Trowers, and Charles, are all being zoned to residential. My property isn’t. I’m not saying it was intentional discrimination, I’m just saying it has the appearance. And you couple that with that affordable housing is in the cross hairs.”
Realtor David Kabler worried that the timetable to pass the zoning was too aggressive, and would ultimately harm not just his business, but the long term sustainability of investment in Northampton, “I’ve spoken so many times to you about this, I’ve given you dozens of reasons why this ordinance is faulty. My business is substantial in bringing investment here, and I am concerned this zoning is going to ruin by business. Everyone has been wondering where silent majority is on this, where is the other side? In district 4 we had a fifty percent increase, and I think the silent majority stood up and spoke and elected a different representative who is prepared to ditch this zoning ordinance. This isn’t looking good, there is no reason to go to this atrocious time table you have put in place. To schedule it to be voted on just four days before a new board is scheduled to come on? What does that look like? What does that look like?”
School advocate Andy Teeling questioned the logic of moving forward with the proposed zoning, “I just wanted to say that better schools mean better business. This rezoning is distracting the citizens in the county, they already volunteered to help in the schools but they can’t because they are focusing on the rezoning. Everyone agrees a revision of the zoning should take place. The divisiveness that has occurred is because of the method that was used. So, why don’t we table this, and let all the good people that want to volunteer and help out the schools, be freed up to do so, to help make our schools better. This is what all citizens in this great country gravitate to, and that is good schools. It is a difficult problem, but we can get there. We got there once and we can get there again. We have tremendous brain power that has objected to the rezoning that could be brought to bear on turning our schools around. So please consider tabling this.”
The Board of Supervisors meets Monday for a work session, while the next regular meeting, scheduled for later in December could determine the ultimate fate of the turbulent proposed zoning ordinance if the sitting board decides to actually vote on it, rather than leaving it for the incoming officials.