After Hamilton and Jefferson, the perspective on what we term democracy became defined by the New England transcendentalist traditions of Emerson and Thoreau. For Thoreau , the town hall meeting became, “The true congress…the most respectable one ever formed in the United States.” Emerson followed that the town hall gives, “each individual his fair weight in the government…the rich give the council, and the poor also; moreover, the just and the unjust…every opinion had its utterance, every fact, every acre of land, every bushel of rye its entire weight.” Frenchman Alex de Tocqueville, “Town Meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, it teaches them to use and enjoy it.”
Last Monday, the citizens of Northampton, many of whom for the last two years have been exercising their right to free speech by voicing concerns over the approach, methodology, and content of the changes to the county zoning ordinance, met at the Northampton Fire & Rescue’s Bingo Hall in Nassawadox for a town hall meeting with newly elected Supervisors Spencer Murray and Robert Duer.
This town hall was symbolic in its own right, it also reinforced what we believe separates America from other places in the world. This last November, there was no violence, no riots, no bombings, assassinations or arrests, but instead, citizens went to the polls and peacefully voted for a change. During the evening, topics touched on familiar, critical topics, such as the new zoning, intensive farming, and the loss of Riverside Shore Memorial.
Spencer Murray: This meeting is to hear from you, I have heard your voices and I care about what you think. It’s not about Robert, it’s not about me, it’s about you. We’re going to try our best to take a different turn. To take the county in a different direction. I’ve never seen a wider gap that exists today than between the confidence of the leadership and you, the taxpayers, and I say this because I talk to so many of you. So much of what we have are self-imposed problems and there are no easy answers. If we pull on this rope together we can get this county back to where we want it. Government needs to be three things, It needs to be small, be extremely responsive to you, and It should be boring, that it is run so well that you are as happy as you can be, and you don’t feel the need to come out on a cold rainy night just to voice your protests.
Robert Duer : I’m going to be very brief – I ran to bring fiscal management back to the county, to restore the relationships between the county and towns, and preserve our strengths, our heritage and our culture.
Question: Can you explain to me the new rezoning?
Duer: I don’t think anyone knows…the Mirror had an excellent article about that…do you know Janet (Sturgis)?
Janet Sturgis: No, but one thing a lot of people aren’t thinking about is where they threw out some zoning codes some of us were operating under, and we don’t know what baby went out with that bath water…what protections went, whatever…
Murray: I voted for the existing ordinance in 2009, it followed an extensive process where we followed the comprehensive plan…however, there is no document that cannot be improved; what this document represents, the new proposed zoning, it does several things that I found questionable. One, it gives the zoning administrator powers that I believe go beyond what the code of Virginia and is healthy. Zoning, the answers are not always easy. It also upzones thousands of acres in this county in R categories, and that has some consequences for vested rights…it eliminates the town edge…there may be some good things in this document, there was a lot of hard work done, but it is law now, the new zoning is in place.
David Kabler: The new zoning ordinance is the epitome of an arbitrary and capricious decision making process. There are a lot of people in this room that want it revoked; does anyone want to stand up in support of that? This document needs to be thrown in the trash, right where it belongs, that’s what I believe needs to happen.
Rusty Gowen: We have worked off our docks, clamming and oystering, this new ordinance the way it’s written, why are we changing from rural ag waterfront to R3, I think it is smoke and mirrors to raise the residential tax rate. (Applause from audience)
Murry: I have never wanted to eliminate Special Use permits, take away the opportunity for a neighbor to have a hearing and say this is objectionable to me for this reason, if it devalues your land, that’s not the democracy that we need.
Audience: We are concerned too; we have heard rumors about chicken houses…
Murray: Accomac is having their issues, they have 81 up there. (laughter and applause)
Audience: The section that they have in there, which they call minimum standards for intensive farming, it needs to be called what it is, and it needs to use industry terms, like AFOs, CAFO, we need to define what we are talking about, write it the way so it is understood. Until states can find a way to address industrial farming, then we need address it at a local level. A lot of those laws were put into place when suburbia was encroaching on farms…
Murray: The Right to Farm Act…
Audience: Those laws were meant to protect the farms, but now they have been turned around and are being exploited by lobbyists…
Duer: For 400 years, the ocean and the land has been good to the Eastern Shore, and I don’t think we can throw that all away for a ten year plan. Secondly, seventy-five percent of the waters in Delaware cannot be fished…I cannot sacrifice what we have here for a chicken house. We have some of the best agricultural land right here and there is way to protect that.
Murray: Accomac has three times our population, have they needed a hospital? Yes, they have needed one for thirty or forty years, and now they have one…I’m just not happy about how they got it. But I have accepted it, and now we are going forward…we are not ready, but we know we need to get ready. We know this is going to cost some money. Still, I will not rest until we have a place in Northampton County where our ambulances can go to.
While the contrast in approaches was evident (Duer is a man of few words, while Murray is a man of many, many, many words), the feeling of citizens at this meeting was one of not just hope, but a belief that these newly elected officials, who will be taking office on January 1st, will restore confidence in the Board of Supervisors, and will usher in a more responsive, collaborative approach to governing. And as Murray noted, hopefully a more boring one.