Since early September, Wardtown citizen Ken Dufty has been attempting to be officially included in the Comprehensive Plan Stakeholder Review Group. For Dufty, the process has been flawed, and despite a FOIA and other means, Dufty contends the process is exclusionary. The following letter was sent to the County, challenging the process.
Jacque Chatmon, Chair
Northampton County Planning Commission
Northampton County Planning Commissioners
Susan McGhee, Planning and Zoning Director
Northampton County Board of Supervisors
Eastville, Virginia 23347
Re: Objection to exclusionary process being implemented
to rewrite the 2009 Northampton County Comprehensive Plan
To Above Addressees:
On Tuesday evening during the September 12, 2017 monthly meeting of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and during the citizen comment period, I registered my official complaint that citizens who were very active in the 2014-2015 attempt by the Northampton County Planning Commission (NCPC) zoning debate were being denied an opportunity to participate in yet another attempt by the NCPC to apparently rewrite our 2009 Comprehensive Plan. In response, Chairman Murray recommended that we “try to talk to someone who does not agree with you”. He also encouraged citizens who want to get involved to attend a September 13 “stakeholder” meeting to finalize the draft of the new Comp Plan so changes could be deliberated and assessed before a final plan was released for official consideration.
So last night, approximately 34 “stakeholders” assembled at the NCBOS board room in Eastville for a pre-scheduled and private work session. Note that there are 84 “stakeholders” that were hand picked by the NCPC, and requests by citizens active in the zoning debate of several years ago and interested in taking part in shaping this important document have been denied participation. Approximately 10 citizens who have been shut out of the drafting work sessions also attended.
Planning Department’s Kelley Lewis coordinated the meeting and the “stakeholders” were broken up into 4 separate groups where these chosen few could “talk to each other” and make recommendations for changes to the plan. While I took a seat on the table with Bob Meyers, Sarah Morgan, Bill Parr, John Coker, Larry DiRie and another gentle lady (Kim?), I was barred from participating and was not able to fill out the comment work sheets that would serve as a springboard for discussions between these “stakeholders” after the forms had been filled out.
Other citizens that attended but were not invited to participate (including one of the principal real estate agents in the county, Mr. David Kabler) sat in chairs and benches on the outside of the work session tables, observing in fish bowl fashion their future being reshaped and molded in the manner the hand picked stakeholders recommended.
Quite frankly, the exclusion from this process when indeed we had requested the opportunity to be involved and after the work we had put in saving this county from a similar unilateral attempt by Chatmon’s Planning Commission to rewrite our 2009 zoning ordinance in a manner that is now reflected in the draft Comprehensive Plan, was demoralizing and, again frankly, embarrassing. So I am officially placing it within the record of this proceeding that the ongoing process to rewrite our Comprehensive Plan without the full participation of citizens who have requested that right is arbitrary, capricious, and in direct contrast to legislative spirit and intent of the Code of Virginia [15.2-2222 et.al.].
That said, after watching stakeholders debate the merits of the plan, much in the spirit that Chairman Murray recommended us to do but were denied that opportunity, I want to share with you some of my notes that concluded that this initial draft of OUR vision for the future of this county written by members of the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC)in large part (another hand-picked band of industrial and commercial interests), is woefully deficient and needs to be re-drafted.
Bill Parr, Chairman of the CPAC.speaking to the Economic section of the draft spoke ad nauseum that we need to expand commercial opportunities in the county in order to grow our county revenue coffers. Had I been able to speak, which I wasn’t, I would have asked where the workforce was going to come from, and if we were able to get them here after getting a major employer to come (which will never happen unless we get high speed internet and cell phone service throughout the county), where were these new workers going to live? Bill Payne, co-chair of the tightly closed CPAC, blamed our zoning ordinance for not being “business friendly” and said it was this ordinance that was stopping new business from coming in. Rightfully so, Mr. Coker rebuffed that rather misguided and time-worn remark, informing him that he has never witnessed a more business friendly group of supervisors…a response that I would have enthusiastically supported had I been able to speak. Sarah Morgan remarked that citizen input was “a very small cross-section of the county”. She also commented that Pat Coady’s (another CPAC member) colloquy in the introduction of the plan was inappropriate and indeed strange seeing as the Comp Plan is supposed to be objective and dedicating that much space to one man’s opinion was inappropriate. Larry DiRie, Planner from Cape Charles, commented that the Plan was inadequate in regard to the inclusion of maps and mapping details, and said that breaking the Comp Plan into 2 separate sections made the perusal of the document unwieldy. Robert Meyers, addressing the Environmental Section, spoke to flooding, groundwater, and erosion. He echoed the sentiment of many at the table that the Comp Plan has NO specific recommendations on how to fix the problems this county faces, and while in general hints at addressing these problems, the entire exercise is devoid of action plans. He pointed out that in one section the Plan indicates that groundwater is an important resource for economic growth and sustainability, but in another section the plan states that groundwater is not important for drinking water. John Coker, also commenting on the Economic Section, specifically addressed the hurdles this county faces as we move forward into the next decade, obstacles that have to be cleared in order to water and grow this economy in a sustainable manner. They included the need to build new schools, getting broadband srervice down the “last mile”, and creating a business climate that attracts new investment. Again, he raised the issue that the draft plan had no discernible plan on how to tackle these problems, and the document has to “have a plan” and chart a course of action rather than just presenting words and colloquy outlining the issues to be addressed.
Mary Miller brought the group into reality, quoting how many empty parcels are for sale or available in Northampton County now, apparently responding to Parr’s mantra that we need to have more real estate available. She said there were about 6600 single family homes in Northampton County, yet 6,929 residential lots available for new housing. She said the Plan’s recommendation to increase density (number of houses per acre or lot) especially in light of the fact that the population is projected to decline over the next 20 years has no basis for support. She said what we do need to accomplish to meet the needs of the aging population is offer more affordable housing, echoed by John as teachers are having a hard time finding housing that is suitable for their household budgets. She pointed out that the current zoning allows accessory dwellings to be able to add more housing on existing residential lots, but very few are taking advantage of that and increasing density does not guarantee that people are going to start building new houses. She indicated that this county is out of compliance with code 15.2-2223(d) regarding maps and designation of affordable housing goals and options, perhaps suggesting that may be more important than the effort being put into rewriting a Comprehensive Plan. She echoed other comments that there is no action plan in the draft…in other words much attention is spent on articulating the hurdles and obstacles facing Northampton County in the near and distant future, but no specific recommendations or plans on how to address these issues. Finally, Mary Miller, in probably the most important comment of the night, stated that one of the primary reasons Northampton County is not growing in the pace and manner that it deserves is because it is not being aggressively marketed. John Coker seconded this notion, and it was mentioned that the 2014 Competitive Assessment Report stressed three years ago that lack of marketing was a major flaw in the management and promotion of this county. Had I been allowed to speak, I would have enthusiastically jumped to my feet and blessed both of these comments. [My note here: It is not “if you build it they will come”. It is “we have it, but not many seem to know we are even here!”. John recently met a consultant who did work here for the board, and even though he lived in another part of Virginia, did not even know the Eastern Shore of Virginia existed. In just his short time here, he told John they were going to be looking for a retirement home here…another example of “if you get them here, they will come back”].
Bill Payne complained that the transportation section was only 6 pages, and said the Comp Plan should recommend lowering the speed limit around the Cape Charles light. As mentioned earlier, he blamed the zoning ordinance for the reason businesses are not coming here.
Kim said the county needs three things: a civic center for seniors, better signage on Route 13, a Movie theater, and better health care (emergency health care facility).
Parr finished up with promoting the Special Event approach to revenue growth and attracting new people here, especially the wedding event venue. He said a successful event brings hundreds of people here who shop in the retail stores, eat at local restaurants, and stay in local hotels, bed and breakfasts, and motels.
One thing that was clear to this writer who was relegated to the position of notetaker during this exclusive and limiting work session from which the general public was effectively barred in regards to input and participation: this initial draft of this voluminous new Comprehenisive Plan is woefully and indeed fatally deficient not only in part, but in whole. There is so much work that has to be done to this document that, in the way this is being handled so far, it will be years before it will be a defendable document that can withstand public and judicial scrutiny.
It has taken the Planning Commission over three years to write this document, and we hold that the reason this draft is so woefully inadequate is that it was written behind closed doors by private industrial, commercial, and real estate interests without the work shops, focus groups, surveys, town hall meetings, and public meetings that are not only necessary, but mandatory in attempting to capture the will and vision of the majority of citizens who are the true “stakeholders’ of their own municipal economic and environmental fate.
This process has been a tremendous waste of time and county resources, and is reflective of the over $700.000 in wasted taxpayer resources that we spent on hiring and entertaining an economic development director….an exercise that was equally absurd and disruptive to the tasks at hand.
In short, there is absolutely no evidence in the public or private record that indicates that there is a need or desire by the majority of residents that we need to rewrite our 2009 Comprehensive Plan. We know the problems we face, and allowing commercial and by-right industrial expansion along Route 13 and around the towns, as Mr. Parr suggests, is akin to trying to extinguish a municipal house fire with gasoline. This is clearly yet another attempt by a very small band of private interests, including members of the Planning Commission, to direct our planning staff to change the direction and course of this county in a manner that entirely contrasts the will of the majority, and we need to end it now and until all citizens in this county are involved, consulted, and fully participatory.
It is nearly surreal that CPAC members and Planning Commissioners are directing our taxpayer-funded and dedicated Planning Department employees to undertake this monumental task of rewriting our 2009 Comprehensive Plan with no public demand to do so and to apparently accomplish private goals and motives of those who simply wish to profit at the expense of our rural quality of life. This unilateral effort cannot be considered as anything but an end run on the will of the majority of citizens (as evidenced by the results of the 2015 BOS elections) to accomplish the ill-fated goal of the 2014 zoning ordinance. We need to let our spectacular planning staff get back to the issues at hand…..assisting residents and businesses alike in their efforts to invest in and grow the local economy. If their municipal plates were not spilling over as a result of the folly that the Planning Commission is perpetrating on our county staff, perhaps resources and efforts could be redirected to market this fantastic and unique place in a manner that will truly and sustainably propel us to a new and brighter future.