TO: Chairman Rick Hubbard and the Northampton County Board of Supervisors
As you know from my previous comments (both written and oral), I have significant concerns with the zoning changes being proposed and the process by which these proposed changes have been developed. Please understand, this does not mean that I am against making changes to the zoning ordinance. In fact, I agree that the ordinance is overly long and complicated, and that it could benefit from some well researched and thoughtful modification. My main concerns have been with the lack of public input into this process, and the continually shifting nature of the proposed changes. For these reasons I once again urge you to scrap the current re-zoning proposal and begin the process again, this time with input from the general public and based on the best available economic and scientific studies.
In my previous comments, made at several public meetings, I have compared your support of the proposed zoning changes to my affection for an old pair of patched-up blue jeans that my mother threw away one day. When I asked my mother why she had put my favorite pair of jeans into the trash she responded that they had become more patches than pants, and she was afraid something embarrassing would pop out if I wore them in public. Like my old pants, your zoning proposal has become a patchwork of changes that are impossible for your own staff to keep track of and accurately compare to the current zoning ordinance. Given the continual back and forth of changes, I fear that even you may not know what version of the proposal you will be voting on and it is very likely that you may pass an ordinance with changes you do not fully support. Changes that could have a significant negative impact on the lives of your constituents and the character of our county.
Unlike previous efforts to change the county zoning ordinance which started with public information and listening sessions, and were firmly rooted in the most recent scientific and economic impact studies, this effort to re-zone the county first came to light when the proposed changes where published in the local paper and presented at a public meeting. At that meeting Charles McSwain, the Director for Economic Development and one of the architects of the proposal, publicly stated that the proposed changes were not based on any scientific or economic impact studies. Since that time you have received HUNDREDS of fact based public comments against specific items in the proposed changes. There has also been an outcry against the lack of public input in the process. At the same time there have been only a handful of public statements made in support of the changes.
In case you have forgotten, after careful review of the proposed changes a large group of private citizens were so upset by your proposal that they organized public information sessions attended by hundreds of citizens and held a first-ever candle-light vigil on the courthouse green to demonstrate against the proposal. Despite wind, rain and unseasonably cold temperatures over one hundred people gathered on the courthouse green in protest. Please think back on another time when something like this has happened. Since that time, dozens of concerned citizens have attended all public meetings of the BOS and availed themselves of every opportunity to speak against the changes you have proposed. Again, with only a handful of people speaking publicly in support of the changes.
Time and again, I have been gratified when it appears you have been listening to this citizen input and have stated that changes would be made. In fact, many of the public comments have resulted in significant changes being made to the document. While I have been pleased to witness you listening to public input and making changes, the fact that these changes were needed and indeed approved by you, indicates how flawed the original proposal was. This makes me wonder how many other issues might be hidden in the document. It also makes me wonder what would have happened if the public had not so vocally rallied against the original document and you had quickly voted to approve it as written.
To illustrate the continually changing nature of the proposed zoning changes let me remind you of the following. The original document called for the removal of Chesapeake Bay Act (CBA) protections from the sea-side of the county. After many public comments against this change we were informed and assured that CBA protections would not be removed from the sea-side. Now, however, it is clear that the Planning Commission, acting under the oversight of the BOS is continuing to investigate the need to maintain CBA protections on the Sea-Side, and one member at least, has publicly stated his goal of removing the CBA protections.
During the public information sessions Mr. McSwain and other members of the county staff told me that a main goal of the proposed zoning changes was to make zoning more consistent across the county. They also expressed the goal of supporting economic growth in the county. So, I ask you, how does removing CBA protections from the sea-side meet these objectives? It seems to me that removal of the CBA from the sea-side would make things much less consistent, with significantly different zoning of waterside properties depending on their location in the county. Removal of CBA protections from the sea-side is also a threat to our growing aquaculture industry. Given the facts that Northampton county has near total control of land run-off into our sea-side coastal bays, that water quality in our coastal bays is significantly better than in Chesapeake Bay and that the majority of clam hatcheries and clam grounds are located on the sea-side it would seem to me that it is in our best interest to protect these waters as much as possible, not make it easier for development to take place in this pristine environment.
Here is another example of the confusing nature and behind the scenes process involved in the development and continual tweaking of the proposed zoning changes. From the day the proposed zoning changes were announced, I and a number of other citizens indicated that several of the changes appeared to be directly linked to the chicken industry and would ease the way for Commercial poultry farms (Confined Animal Feeding Operations CAFOs) to be developed in Northampton County. On multiple occasions at public BOS meetings Supervisors LeMond, Hubbard and Trala indicated that there was no relationship between the proposed zoning changes and the commercial poultry industry and that they did not believe there was any desire on the part of the poultry industry to expand operations into Northampton County. We were also repeatedly told that there had been no communications between the BOS or County Staff and the Poultry Industry, and chastised for implying anything to that effect. It has now been made quite clear that at the very least, Mr. McSwain in his role as Director of Development had been involved in a least one lengthy conversation with representatives from the poultry industry and made a statement indicating the proposed zoning changes would make it easier for commercial poultry farms to be developed in the county. If you care to ignore this issue of a potential back-room deal, you can not ignore the fact that it has become abundantly clear that the changes being proposed will enable commercial poultry operations to be developed in areas where that is not currently possible under our current zoning code. It is also clear from recent newspaper articles and public statements by representatives from the major commercial poultry growers that the poultry industry is expanding and is looking to move into Northampton County.
These are just two examples of the continually shifting landscape that has been created during this process. They also highlight the problems that occur when a rezoning process is carried out behind closed doors and without public input. Unfortunately I could cite more examples and go on for much longer, but do not want to take up any more of your time. Instead, I will again state my pleas that you stop this misguided effort and scrap your proposal to change the zoning in Northampton County. After you do this, I am confident that you will find a multitude of concerned and well informed citizens more than willing to help you develop a new and robust re-zoning proposal that can be supported by economic and scientific studies and will help to build a better and sustainable future for a more prosperous Northampton County.