By Martina Coker and Mary Miller
Editors Note: this story is reprinted from The Shoreline newsletter, with permission from Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore. We are very excited to be able to publish this brilliant and cogent analysis from two of the best minds on the Eastern Shore, Martina Coker and Mary Miller.
Urban Legends are notorious for their inexplicable content and the speed with which they’re spread: alligators in the sewers, Elvis sightings and free airline tickets at the end of a maze of internet links. Northampton County is currently experiencing its own “Rural Legend” outbreak. From statements by political candidates, to speeches and discussion at civic organization meetings, to personal reports submitted as “data” to county government, to the county’s own website, incomplete and inconsistent information is being presented as reliable fact. Conversations starting with “I heard that…,” spread the stories around the county faster than chickenpox used to spread through the third grade. Some examples:
Legend 1: The county’s population is plummeting – people are leaving the county in droves.
Fact: Like many rural Virginia counties, Northampton’s population is declining. But the devil’s in the details. Latest figures from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia state that between the 2010 Census and the end of 2014 the county lost 182 persons or 1.4% of its population – a 177 person decline through what is paradoxically termed “natural increase” (more deaths than births) and a net total decline of only 5 persons through “net migration” (more people moving out than into the county). Unlike many other rural counties, the aging population decline in Northampton is increasingly being replaced by new residents moving into the county.
Legend 2: The county’s workforce is disappearing as jobs disappear.
Fact: According to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), from 2011 to 2015 the county workforce increased by 1939, (from 4445 to 6358). In addition to the workforce numbers, according to the IRS, self-employed business owners increased by 142, (from 851 to 993). These figures include only owner-operated, income producing firms identified by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).
Legend 3: “…the labor force in Northampton County is regional…” – almost half the county workforce, 4202 people, commute to jobs out of the county (quote from the county website’s Economic Development page).
Fact: Employment on and off the Shore has always been regional. Current May, 2015, VEC data indicate that 2250 workers (35.4% of the workforce) commute out of Northampton. Of those, 1266 Northampton residents work in Accomack, many at the chicken processing plants and Wallops; 284 workers commute to Newport News, perhaps taking advantage of recent hiring at the shipyard; and many professionals, business people and others, about 700, commute to the cities of Hampton Roads. According to current data, about 1400 workers commute into Northampton County to fill the available jobs.
Authors’ Note. The out-commute figure on the county website is from a VEC Community Profile, and a printed note of caution accompanies this figure, since a new collection and analysis protocol by the Census Bureau makes comparisons with VEC figures sometimes unreliable. Further research indicates that the new Federal analysis contains synthetic data which conflicts with the actual VEC worker commuting numbers. An employment link that worked on the county web page leads to four-year-old information.
Legend 4: Businesses continue to close all over the county.
Fact: The reality is that the entire country experienced a recession which hit rural areas particularly hard, and several businesses in Northampton closed. Despite this widespread economic reality, Northampton County has had businesses opening, expanding and surviving. The April, 2015, VEC Community Profile indicates: 31 new businesses in 2012, 42 new businesses in 2013 and 30 new businesses in the first 9 months of 2014 – over 100 new businesses registered.
Legend 5: Properties keep losing value in the county.
Fact: Property values in parts of the county increased at an unsustainable rate during the mid-2000’s, as houses and lots were bought and quickly resold. The real estate bubble burst in 2007 resulting in the inevitable deflation of those speculative values. It’s taken years for home and land appraisals to level off at pre-speculation values. However, at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting in April, builders reported increased building activity and protested the firing of county Building Inspection employees. The industry relies on timely inspections to maintain the progress and coordination of the building projects. Zoning Administrator Melissa Kellam has stated that the value of building permits is increasing, showing a shift from renovation to the building of new homes. There are over 5000 approved but undeveloped lots in the county to accommodate those new homes. Bay Creek has reported $12 million in home construction contracts for 2015, and building activity is up in several other areas of the county.
Legend 6: Some rezoning opponents want a Special Use Permit for everything.
Fact: Residents opposing the proposed rezoning and who also support Special Use Permits are almost always referring to non-conforming uses, particularly commercial uses in residential neighborhoods. Homeowners feel they have the right to know and comment on the impacts of nonresidential uses in their neighborhoods. The current Zoning Ordinance does not require Special Use Permits for most commercial uses in Commercial or Business zoning districts.
Legend 7: “I heard the bank across from Food Lion wanted to build on their property but can’t because it’s zoned Agricultural.”
Fact: Those parcels are zoned Town Edge-Commercial General. Almost all commercial uses would be allowed there by-right.
Legend 8: “I heard a developer wanted to build about 20 homes over on seaside but couldn’t because it’s zoned Agricultural.”
Fact: While most of seaside is currently zoned Agricultural, there are multiple undeveloped subdivisions platted, some villages and hamlets, and many other platted residential building lots, with no further rezoning needed. There are many platted parcels east of Route 13, many of which are available for development.
Legends are almost always easier to believe – while the facts take some effort to search out. As more and more citizens are being informed, particularly about rezoning changes, and as the effects of the improving national and state economies start to impact Northampton County, the facts, rather than the legends, will become harder to ignore.