In September of 2016, a tip came in that there had been some environmental damage at the property located at 2281 Old Neck Road in Exmore. The Northampton Wetlands Board, expecting a routine violation, were instead shocked to find one of the worst environmental events in recent history. The property, owned by Benjamin Mathai of Manassas, Virginia had been clear cut from the back property to the point, destroying and disturbing not only tidal wetlands, but a large swath of the state’s Resource Protection Area. Grasses and dirt were removed using heavy construction equipment, and a large mass of old, historic loblolly pines were cut down. This work was done without a permit.
After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the property was impacted by unauthorized clearing activity using manual labor, chain saws and moving equipment and created disturbances to all three environmental sensitive regions-tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area (CCPA buffer). The disturbance can be characterized by felled old growth loblolly pines, and soil disturbance with tractor tracks and tree dragging. Unwanted debris such as limbs and felled trees covered and impacted the growth of sensitive vegetation and soils. The affected areas are in the supratidal zone (the area above the spring high tide line). Vegetation that was removed consisted mainly of American beach grass, salt marsh hay, salt bush and some phragmities.
On November 14, 2016, John Wescoat, council for Mr. Mathai and representatives from Coastal Resource Management, Mathai’s contracting team, appeared before the Wetlands Board. The board presented evidence of the property’s condition using ground and aerial photos. It was determined by the board that the owner would be allowed move debris, but only by hand–machinery would not be allowed on the property so as to minimize further damage.
The Wetlands Board has implemented a restoration plan based on an environmental site assessment by J.W. Salm Engineering, which includes replanting native vegetation as well as a 5-year monitoring plan. The restoration plan is for tidal wetlands only. The restoration plan will run with the land, and will be added to the property’s deed in case it is sold prior to the restoration being completed. The owner will provide the financial security necessary to maintain the restoration plan to a satisfactory completion. A civil charge of $7500 was applied for a significant degree of environmental impact and a moderate degree of non-compliance.
At the January Wetlands Board meeting, attorney for Mr. Mathai, John Wescoat questioned the amount of the civil charge. “In terms of the civil charge, in order to apply the recommended figure set at $7500, would it be that it was your determination that this has significant environmental impact? I would question in terms of whether, although there is no definition given as to whether it is significant, I would question as to whether what you all are concerned about is, or should be considered to be significant environmental impact, and therefore I would question as to whether $7500 is an appropriate charge,” Wescoat said.
Wetlands Board member Bob Meyers responded, “Regarding significant impact, we found destruction that is going to take years to replace. As far as I’m concerned, that is significant.”
Member Bowdoin Lusk added that a significant amount of erosion is being allowed to occur due to the owners actions.
We are witnessing a disturbing trend in Northampton County. Despite the grotesque theater that accompanied the fight over the 2015 zoning effort, it appears the foxes still ended up in charge of the hen house. After all the meetings, plans and charges, in the end it appears the song remains the same, and that many of our citizens seem to have attended the same seminar. Hundreds of years worth of wetland vegetation and old growth trees were removed without any permits or permissions. It will take another hundred years before the area is repaired, yet it will never truly return to its natural state.
In this case, the Wetlands Board did exactly what they were required to do—restore the wetlands. While they levied a $7500 civil charge, for a property marketed for over $1 million, that is barely .75% of the value–not much of a deterrent, and more an acceptable cost of doing business.
The Mirror attempted to contact the county attorney, Bruce Jones, “the Wetlands Board’s decision on the case of the Mathai property on Old Neck Road in Exmore. They imposed a $7500 fine and a five-year restoration plan, which is generally a method the VMRC approves of. On the county side, is there any intention to pursue civil and/or criminal penalties against Mr. Mathai or the contractor?”
The Mirror has not received a response from Jones or Board of Supervisor Chairman Spencer Murray.
CORRECTION: A citizen called to clarify that parts of this article may be misleading relative the legal remedies implied, and the role of the Board of Supervisors. It was noted that violations may go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, but the process will then be taken up the county attorney. The Board of Supervisors is not part of this process.