Special to the Mirror by Ken Dufty, unofficial notes on the the Town Hall meeting held this week at Kiptopeke Elementary School.
Meeting began shortly after 7 pm at Kiptopeke Elementary School,including attendance by the three new Planning Commissioners, including Sarah Morgan who is returning as a Commissioner from previous service.
After thanking citizens for attending, Supervisor Coker updated the crowd on some of the projects the Board of Supervisor is working on. He started with the current budget deliberations and adoption, highlighting the fact that raises were given to teachers and the deputies, but no tax increase was levied on residents. However, he did stress that the county needs to find new sources of revenue in order to sustain the level of services that is now shouldered by the county.
A. VDOT update….Supervisor Coker (herein referred to as “John” for brevity and with respect) credited the work of Granville Hogg for encouraging the installation of a new stop light at the dangerous intersection at the Food Lion Plaza in Cape Charles. John did say the county played an important role in that decision, and said that the light probably would be installed next year.
B. New Bike Trail…..John explained that the fines that are received from drivers who are caught traveling with an open container go into a fund that is dedicated to the purpose of protecting pedestrians and bike riders from harm re: mainstream traffic. One project to accomplish this goal is to construct a new bike trail from downtown Cape Charles to the Food Lion Plaza. He said that 2 people had lost their lives traveling to and from the plaza over the last several decades.
C. Cape Charles Anchorage. Currently ships can anchor 1 to 2 miles off the coast of Cape Charles but the Coast Guard is proposing to move it to a confined area 3 miles off shore, but no decision has been made yet. John did run into an official involved in this decision making, and has been informed that no definitive decision has been reached but it is pending.
D. Railroad. John said that the railroad is owned by Accomack, Northampton, the state and the transportation commission. He said assets are being sold off to pay for maintenance and retire debt. He said Cape Charles and the county would work together to develop a plan for future use (reuse) of the rail yard.
E. Groundwater. John spoke of the need to protect the sustainability of our sole source aquifer, explaining that now we use about 9 million gallons/day (mgd) and our aquifer is being recharged by an equal amount. However, he said there is an additional 3 mgd proposed to be withdrawn by proposed uses such as the poultry industry in Accomack County, and we must be careful of overpumping, especially as it pertains to the potential for saltwater encroaching into our lower and more used Yorktown Aquifer. Note John is the Chairman of the A-NPDC Groundwater Committee. He spoke of the need to rely more on the surficial or Columbia aquifer which he said recharges at a rate 100 times greater than the Yorktown. He explained that the groundwater committee is working on legislation that would incentivize increased use of the Columbia and he expects progress on that initiative next year.
F.Schools….recent inspection by engineers revealed that the high school is not in danger of falling down nor is it not safe for students, although it does need structural work. He said the focus is on keeping the school there for 5 years while financing options are put in place to address the need for more modern facilities for our students.
G. Tourism Commission. John spoke of the plan to restructure the tourist commission and move its headquarters to a more central location.
H. Broadband Authority///John said the BA has borrowed $5 million and expects to be able to serve 70% of users within 2 years.
I. Health Care. John informed the crowd that the county now has a state of the art Nightingale Pad that allows a medical helicopter to land even in inclement weather as it can electronically guide in the craft. He also lauded Eastern Shore Rural Health’s plans to build their new facility on Route 13 in Eastville.
II. Discussion of Draft 2018 Comprehensive Plan.
The agenda that was handed out to attendees listed 10 facets of the draft Comp Plan that would start discussion in the spirit of a town hall meeting. John shared his thoughts on many of those topics and this discussion included Supervisor Dave Fauber (“Dave”) and his feelings on the draft. Note that after these supervisors shared their view and critique of the draft, the floor was open for comment and a healthy exchange of ideas and suggestions.
a)Introduction (tone and content): Both supervisors agreed that the introduction was hard to read and follow, and had an excessively negative tone.
They also thought that the Virginia Code would be more appropriately placed as an attachment rather than in the beginning text of the introduction. They said the language should be more straightforward and simple and easier to understand.
They also commented that the CPAC phone survey that was funded by the real estate industry should not be used as a major basis for the PC’s recommendations.
b) The supervisors commented that there seemed to be no rationale for the elimination of Hamlets and rezoning them into Villages with a higher density and commercial, industrial and institutional uses that are not allowed in our 28 Hamlets now.
c) The supervisors were adamant that the Oyster and Willis Wharf visioning statements should be left in, as a lot of work from the citizens in those areas went into updating that work in 2012 as part of the comp plan update that began 7 years ago.
d) Town Edge….both supervisors agreed that it made sense to encourage future development around the towns and areas that have sewer and water, but said that any development in the town edge should fully involve the towns that would have to provide services to any project.
e) Density Changes…during the discussion after the presentation, both supervisors agreed that any density changes needed to have a rationale, as it was recognized that there are many empty lots now that are not being developed. The supervisors opined that increasing density with no studies, expert consultants or a rationale seemed to only benefit the real estate interests and could not be supported without an evidentiary basis.
f) Overall comments: The supervisors seemed to agree that the draft plan needs to be sent back to the PC in its entirety, a consultant hired to assist the PC in updating the 2009 plan where needed, and have a more open and inclusive process than the one transpiring over the last 6 years. Dave commented that there are several sections that should be considered to be updated and left in, including Parts 5, 6, and 7. He agreed that a Comp Plan Update should not be a surrogate for a rezoning effort, and thought the economic development plan as written should be scrapped. He thought that 25% of part 4 should be scrapped, but did like the history and geography sections.
In closing, both supervisors and the attendees seemed to agree that Northampton County has to come up with ways to capture revenue from “pass through” exchanges past our borders. We need more revenue to support our schools, health care, services and county operations, but we need to find ways to do that without sacrificing our rural nature,environmental sanctity, and charm that attracts the tourist trade. John commented that building more houses on fewer acres will only tax services more and always results in a negative effect on county coffers.
PUBLIC COMMENT AND EXCHANGE
After the discussion by the supervisors, the floor was open for comment (although the supervisors fielded questions during their commentary.) Many people spoke of their concerns over the draft and the process that went into that effort. Some of the comments included: the lack of an open and transparent process with very limited opportunities for full public participation; Barrier Islands and the need to stabilize them as they roll towards the eastern coast of NC; reasons why people came here and the need to retain our rural character; more public access to the water; Bayview and the need for improvements there including the need for new or better management; VDOT involvement in a future Comp Plan update; the fact that hiring a consultant is not a “genie in a bottle” and the need to carefully choose that expert input; the fact that there are many platted subdivisions that have not been developed now; the fact that there are 9,700 vacant parcels in the county now and that there is no reason to increase density now because of that dynamic; the fact that Staaten Island used to be just like Northampton County until the developers convinced elected officials that density increase was needed to raise revenues.. a fallacy that sent taxes through the roof; the need to protect Route 13 from massive development as this is our primary recharge area (a point made repeatedly by John Coker); several residents of Oyster and Willis Wharf commented that Waterfront Hamlets need to stay and remain protected; a suggestion that the new Planning Commissioners should be encouraged to read the 2009 Comp Plan and use that as a foundation for a real update, and not a complete rewrite of the county’s vision for the next 20 years; a dissertation on the railroad, with John giving a detailed look into the finances and future of that asset, which is co-owned by county taxpayers; the fact that the hospital has left and the need to address the lack of immediate health care for those in need; dredging of the channels and suggestions on what to do with the dredge materials in regard to beneficial reuse(stabilize Barrier Islands…..a suggestion that may not sit well with the Nature Conservancy as discussed by participants); and, the fact that the draft Comp Plan is in direct contravention to the code of Virginia section 15.2-2223 et. al.; and kudos to the Kelley Lewis Parks for the work she and fellow Planning Department personnel put into this long and arduous process, noting that they were simply following the direction of the Planning Commission and must have spent thousands of hours on this project.
The meeting wrapped up around 8:30 and it should be noted that not one person spoke in favor of the draft plan or the process that was employed to prepare the draft. Overall, it seemed everyone was incredibly relieved that it appeared that the draft plan would be sent back to the Planning Commission for a REAL update of our prevailing Comprehensive Plan, an expert consultant would be retained to assist the new Planning Commission (and existing members) in that exciting work, and that the public would have ample opportunity to be as involved as they would like to be in this ongoing effort.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Perhaps this marks the end of a 6 year controversy that has literally consumed many, many citizens who sought only to protect the 2009 Comprehensive Plan and the majority’s vision of what they want this community to look like over the next 20 years. Can you imagine where we would be today if the amount of effort that it took to defend this county against plans that were not embraced by the majority was spent working WITH our elected leaders to help address and solve our many economic and environmental challenges? Perhaps now we will get that chance.