Special to the Cape Charles Mirror by Mary Miller. This article first appeared in the May 2106 Edition of the Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore’s Shoreline, and is used here with their permission.
Virginia Code requires that a locality’s Planning Commission “prepare and recommend a comprehensive plan” to guide the development of the county. That was done decades ago in Northampton County and a plan was adopted by the Board of Supervisors. The Code also requires this: “At least once every five years, the Comprehensive Plan shall be reviewed by the local planning commission to determine whether it is advisable to amend the plan.”
The requirement is for a review—not a revision, not a rewrite, but only a review. And this was also done several years ago, with extensive public input both sought and incorporated into the review and Plan amendments.
There is now a draft Comprehensive Plan about to be circulated by the Planning Commission which appears to not be merely a five-year review and possible revision of the county’s current Plan – but a whole new document. Its appearance, full blown, begs the question – where did a brand new Comprehensive Plan come from?
History Repeats Itself
Two years ago, a brand new county Zoning Ordinance, also full-blown, burst out of the county Planning Department. There had been no public meetings, no opportunity for community input – just bureaucrats busy making up the new zoning regulations. And just when we thought history couldn’t possibly repeat itself, now that we are all paying attention, a completely rewritten Comprehensive Plan draft has appeared, this time from the Planning Commission. And once again, there was no community participation, no requests or announcements from the Commission seeking public input – just appointed county commissioners busy writing up a new scenario for the county’s future.
Again, the Question – Where Did It Come From?
The Code requires that “the (Planning) commission shall make careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of the existing conditions and trends of growth, and of the probable future requirements of its territory and inhabitants.” The commission’s draft Plan cites the following resources as input, in order:
-Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) (appointed by a previous Board; submitted a report which included the results of a 2012 survey funded by the National Association of Realtors – phone survey included 350 unidentified county households – Committee has since been disbanded)
-Stakeholders (group assembled nearly a decade ago to review Plan drafts as they were being created – no group input since 2012 – several original members no longer active in the county)
-“Expert advice” (no details provided)
The draft also states:
-that a Visioning Workshop document was provided to Chamber of Commerce members
-that monthly Commission meetings afforded the opportunity for comment and that there had been four Comprehensive Plan comments concerning the lack of studies undertaken, and two comments noting the lack of public input
-That an online opportunity for input was available, but there had been no response
Since there were no recent public meetings or community workshops held, and since no timely effort was made by the current Commission to promote community participation, these limited “input” resources effectively excluded about 90% of county residents and landowners.
A First Look at What the Draft Plan Contains
The first several pages of the Plan could be entitled “The Decline and Fall of Northampton County.” There are long introductory editorial essays on the ills and woes of Northampton County with many, many verbatim paragraphs from the CPAC Report.
With little to no actual public input, either from citizens, or business or industry groups, or health care or environmental groups, the following information and comments appear to be solely the Planning Commission’s thoughts and conclusions on what the county’s future should be. (Background editorial comments are in italics.)
-Much of the data and comparative charts are old, 2012 and before, and the CPAC Report and Stakeholders’ input are both from 2012.
-Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) are recommended several times, as a solution for workforce housing, tourism, second homes – but no conditions or mechanisms to ensure the inclusion of “affordable” or workforce housing in those PUDs. (These high-density developments were recently removed from a proposed zoning amendment since no PUD Ordinance had been developed, and the county has an excess of undeveloped parcels.)
Wastewater/sewage remains on the list of Goals (County residents have repeatedly voiced opposition to building central sewage projects outside the Towns.)
-Waterfront housing is the only type likely to have increased demand. The Plan contains several pages of real estate information, and emphasizes the importance of the real estate industry to the county’s economy.
-Hamlets, as traditional crossroads communities, are eliminated from the Land Use Plan. (There are currently 26 mapped Hamlets and 3 Waterfront Hamlets in the county.)
-Management of and provisions for Commercial Development along Rt 13 are recommended and are to be located both where businesses currently exist and in “nodal growth” at “existing improved intersections.”
-Ground water: the draft Plan states that no one at workshops mentioned “that there was a desire for access to clean water.”
-Natural resource/water protections appear to be the bare minimum of State standards and regulations. (Since 2013, VA Code requires localities in Tidewater Virginia, including Northampton and Accomack Counties, to “incorporate the guidance developed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science…into the next scheduled review of its comprehensive plan.”)
-Reconsideration of retaining the Bay Act on the seaside is recommended.
-Business promotion and marketing of the county by Economic Development Department was stated four times as a Goal to support economic development. (In spite of repeated recommendations by economic development and competitiveness experts, there was no mention of creating a robust internet presence and website as a Strategy to implement the Goal.)
-Way finding signs: the need for them as a way to locate small rural businesses off the highway is mentioned three times. (The Planning Commissioned removed both way-finding signs and off-site business listing signs for the Towns from the proposed 2015 Zoning Ordinance. They are included in the 2016 Ordinance.)
-Many goals appear, if not unrealistic, then often with no discernible path for attainment: e.g., build healthy communities so residents will walk more and get healthier, attract year-round “livable wage” jobs, build a community health center, reduce poverty, etc.
Although there is currently a draft Comprehensive Plan in the Planning Commission’s working papers, it remains to be seen whether the Commission will present it as a finished product for the Board of Super¬visor’s consideration. Or will the draft be the starting point for inviting public participation in the long range Plan for the county’s future?