EXTRA! Hundreds Turn Out Against County Zoning Plan

Portion of March 11 crowd at Northampton High auditorium (Wave photo)

Portion of March 11 crowd at Northampton High auditorium (Wave photo)

Cape Charles Wave

March 13, 2014

Over 200 persons turned out Tuesday night (March 11) at Northampton High auditorium for a combined Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission public hearing on a proposed new zoning code for Northampton County. Some 50 members of the audience rose to speak – mostly in opposition – and the meeting, which began at 7, carried on until 11 p.m.

One old-timer said the meeting reminded him of 1994, when in the same auditorium hundreds of locals gathered to protest a county-endorsed plan to build a maximum security federal prison off Bayview Road. Wednesday night’s gathering may have been the most outspoken opposition to county plans in 20 years, he said.

The heat began to rise well before public comment time began. County Economic Development Director Charles McSwain and his staff led off with an overview of the proposed zoning code, which he noted had been in the works for a very long time — three years. That led Planning Commission member Roberta Kellam to bristle, “If there is a problem with timing, perhaps you should look in the mirror.”

There was more than a hint of bad blood between the appointed Planning Commission, chaired by Martina Coker, and County staff – specifically McSwain, who only arrived a year ago but has since been the focal point for change in the county. Verbal exchanges included the following:

COKER — Why is the zoning ordinance not in accord with the Comprehensive Plan? Why has a revised Comp Plan not been released? Why has there been no public input to the Comp Plan before tonight?

McSWAIN — This was all done at the request of the Board of Supervisors.

COKER — Aquaculture could be greatly affected by the proposed changes. Have there been any studies done on what the effect might be?

McSWAIN — No specific studies have been done about that.


COKER — Special use permits are intended to protect surrounding neighbors. [Under the plan] there could be 999 chickens housed in the R5 District. Have there been any studies done on how that would affect the neighbors? Has there been any analysis on what the impact would be on property values? [Applause]

McSWAIN – There has been no scientific analysis.

COKER – How will the zoning ordinance be interpreted? Will there be impacts that bypass the Planning Commission?

McSWAIN – [County] staff will create the guidelines.

COKER — Have there been any studies of the impact of the changes to the zoning ordinance?


Then Roberta Kellam took over:

KELLAM — Why are you removing the use of single-wide mobile homes in the county?

McSWAIN —  They are not a good economic solution.

KELLAM — We don’t have enough affordable housing in the county.

KELLAM — Seaside needs the same protection as bayside. What is the difference between storm water management vs. Bay Act protection? The Planning Commission has had no public input sessions about this zoning matter. The March meeting was cancelled due to the weather. That was our only chance for input about this. Public comments are closed tonight with no public input other than this event. This is one of the most disappointing violations of public trust.

And then the public comments began. The no. 1 complaint was over removal of protections for seaside property.

Nature Conservancy local director Jill Bieri said that the Conservancy pays $70,000 property tax annually and has spent over $100 million to acquire land. They are concerned that zoning changes would affect water quality. “Complete the Comp Plan — put this zoning plan on hold,” she urged.

Art Schwarzschild, chairman of the Willis Wharf Steering Committee, said the villages of Willis Wharf and Oyster “took two years and thousands of dollars to come up with village vision statements. . . . We strongly oppose changes to Willis Warf zoning. Changing it unilaterally without meeting with the community is unacceptable. The Chesapeake Bay Protection Act should not be eliminated from the seaside. When other shellfish areas were badly hurt by Hurricane Irene, we were protected because of our CBPA protections. Please think about this public input and take it to heart,” said Schwarzschild, who also is in charge of the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster.

Arthur Upshur, president of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES) told the Board of Supervisors that they “have a legal requirement to protect the community.” A CBES editorial on the zoning proposal reprinted in the Wave may be read by clicking here.

Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper Jay Ford presented the Supervisors with a petition with over 400 signatures urging them to “slow down.” “People want to know why their clear call to protect water quality countywide is being disregarded,” he said, characterizing the zoning overhaul as “nothing more than a dangerous gamble.” “The proposal to remove the Bay Protection Act from the seaside of the county is reckless at best, and in direct conflict with citizen opinion,” he said.

Ford has disputed a statement by Economic Development Director McSwain that the zoning proposals are “consistent” with the Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan calls for the entirety of the county to remain in the Bay Protection Act, he noted. “I would challenge anyone to explain how a proposal to remove crucial water quality protections from half of the county could be labeled consistent or in general agreement” with the Comprehensive Plan, Ford said. Click here to read his full statement.

Bob Myers also took issue with McSwain’s handling of the zoning proposals. “McSwain wants to make it seem like this has been an open process. It has not been,” he said. “I provided concerns about industrial wind turbines,” but received no response, he said. Myers also raised concerns about the effect of irrigation ponds on the Columbia Aquifer.

The Rev. Debbie Lee Bryant traveled from across the bay to speak, noting that her family has lived on the Shore for 350 years and that she hails from the Birdsnest hamlet of Bridgetown. “The proper place for this planning to go is through the Planning Commission. Why are there industrial uses in a hamlet? I don’t care if you are white, black, blue, or purple, you do not want all those activities in a hamlet,” she emphasized.

Tom Gallivan of Shooting Point Oyster Co. said, “Don’t ignore the aquaculture industry. We are the largest hard clam producers in the world. We only have that because we have good clean water. I’ve spawned clams all over the USA. There is no place better than Parting Creek. You have to control and protect the watershed. Protect the seaside.”

Heather Lusk, speaking for HM Terry seafood company, said that Northampton County grows almost all the hard clams in Virginia, generating over $50 million annually. Clams create 170 full-time and 75 part-time jobs in the county, she said. Northampton County controls the whole watershed on the seaside, and there is no justification for relaxing seaside water protection.

Andrew Barber of Seaview said that “simplification is a cover” for going counter to the spirit of the existing Comp Plan. “Higher density along the shoreline is an insanity. Sea levels are rising. The lessons of Sandy in New Jersey should not be missed here,” he said. “In the name of economic development we are getting a porridge of conflicting uses allowed. More  than economic development, it is a whole lot of residential uses. It eliminates the need for proffers. Who benefits? We have the most successful industry for our environment – aquaculture,” he said.

A few speakers rose to defend the new zoning plan. Cape Charles resident Paul Strong said he “wanted to give a little balance: Work together, cooperatively, not as obstructionists. Change is inevitable. The only thing that excites interest is the fear of change. I think we can do better,” he said.

Montaigne Cree of Blue Heron Realty said the current zoning ordinance is very complicated and should be simplified. However, she supported keeping the 100-foot buffer requirement from the Bay Protection Act.

Bill Prettyman from Virginia Beach said he grew up on Shore and supports the rezoning. It should help with affordable housing, he said.

Justin Colson of C&E Farms said his firm employs 70 Northampton residents. “We could not expand our office because of Bay Act protections,” he said. “We need a middle road.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry LeMond allowed every speaker to complete his or her remarks without being cut off.




11 Responses to “EXTRA! Hundreds Turn Out Against County Zoning Plan”

  1. Kearn Schemm on March 13th, 2014 9:18 am

    I wish I had been there, sounds like direct democracy in action. We need more of it.

  2. Mike Kuzma, Jr. on March 13th, 2014 11:42 am

    I understand that there was a wastewater issue associated with the maximum security prison, but there are few entities that provide such a wealth of jobs — especially for those without advanced degrees — as a prison. 24/7/365 staffing. Support services. Supplies. Ad infinitum.

  3. David Kabler on March 13th, 2014 12:52 pm

    No doubt the BOS rec’d tons of written comments on the proposal. There is still time to make your own voice heard, either through the written or spoken word. Our meeting did produce the result of referring the matter to the Planning Commission which meets at 7pm on Wed., March 19, 2nd floor of the Admin. bldg. They need to hear from you about what you think, most especially any specific concerns you may express, in order to deliberate in behalf of the public good.

  4. Donna Bozza on March 13th, 2014 2:46 pm

    Thank you to the Cape Charles Wave for the comprehensive coverage of this most important meeting and the biggest issue to face our county in decades. Thanks too to Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper and CBES for waking us up!

    I am in awe of Planning Commission Chair Martina Coker and member Roberta Kellam for NOT cowing to the County’s pressure tactics. Instead they stood up and fought for taxpayers to have the chance to give our input at their meeting next Wednesday — as Dave Kabler cites above. I will be there — hope to see another big crowd. Showing up is the only thing that can derail this “hurry up, get this passed” mentality. If this new zoning is such a great idea, why the insane rush? Why bypass the Comprehensive Plan? And why look at public participation as somehow toxic to the democratic process?

    FYI: Bill Prettyman of Virginia Beach quoted in the article said he is from the Shore and supports the new zoning. It should be noted that he has spent the last decades developing huge tracts of land in Northampton County.

  5. Bobby Roberts on March 13th, 2014 8:53 pm

    I sat through the whole meeting and here’s what I learned: Nobody knows why the county needs a zoning change. No studies were done to show what might happen after the changes become law. No one thought about what happens to clams and aquaculture after the changes. No one knows what happens to property values if 999 chickens move in next door. No science studies show what might happen to water quality if the Bay Act goes away from the seaside. The same county Staff that wrote these changes will “interpret” them. And best of all, from the county Economic Development Director, “The Board of Supervisors told me to do it.”

  6. David Kabler on March 14th, 2014 6:10 am

    A point was made that “change is inevitable…” and we should not fear it. Risking the quality of our waters, developing the Rt. 13 corridor, allowing prisons here, doubling our housing density, placing heavy industry out in the farmland, dropping the waterfront protection for Oyster and Willis Wharf, eliminating the role of the Planning Commission, placing power in the hands of one person for land use decisions — these are not the changes our citizens enumerated in many years of vision-quest meetings.
    Charles McSwain was hired to promote economic development. Our County Board of Supervisors, instead of directing him to “hit the bricks” and bring in new business, fixed him up with a big staff with orders to revise our zoning ordinance. He’s followed their orders to a “T”. What I want to know is, how many customers has he brought to the County who have chilled because of our zoning? Maybe if he and his formidable staff spent as much effort marketing and selling we might just see some business development without disrespecting our values. Blaming our zoning ordinance for our poverty is just a cover for not making any effort at economic development. I say, “Bring in the Tall Ships!”

  7. Scott Walker Jr on March 14th, 2014 8:12 am

    Your sensationalist headline “Hundreds Turn Out Against County Zoning Plan” is factually misleading. At least 50-odd citizens spoke against, which leaves 150 citizens’ viewpoint unaccounted for. Could it be that a few attended to become informed? As usual, you are employing big-city hype to small-town issues, and you shoot yourself in your reportorial foot. Get real.

    Obviously you weren’t there — the crowd’s applause alone told the story. And if anything, the Wave lowballed the count. The Shore Daily News reported that “Northampton Supervisors and planning commission members endured 4 hours of criticism at a public hearing on the new proposed zoning and ordinance changes for Northampton County. Approximately 300 concerned citizens aired their gripes. . . .” And the Eastern Shore Post described “a packed house of approximately 400.” Normally, Wave reporting doesn’t go outside town limits, but given that this proposed rezoning could have the most important effect on the county in 20 years, we went the extra mile. Sorry it didn’t please you. –EDITOR

  8. Donna Bozza on March 14th, 2014 12:49 pm

    Though Scott and I often connect on issues, I do have to say he missed the target here. First off, my reporter training taught me well when it comes to our community and county issues. It would be nice if we would come out in droves to “get informed” –and I did know a couple of people personally who attended the hearing for that reason. But human nature being what it is, especially with our already too-busy lives, it takes “dynamite” to get us out for Public Hearings in mass. We usually have to feel threatened or outraged or both to get off our duffs after a long workday. However, once there, it won’t be hard to see how Shore folks feel. Often we are polite and don’t get ugly — a lovely Southern charm — but applause as the WAVE stated is a good indicator of why we left a warm house and a glass of wine to speak out in defense of our home OR support those who did go to the podium.

    I hope the WAVE will come to next Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning Commission too.

  9. Page Bradley on March 14th, 2014 6:32 pm

    Keep those clean waters. And keep the low cost housing. Where on earth would the lower income people go if they had to move? Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a wonderful, beautiful place that should be preserved. Developments will add little to the area’s economy, while using precious ground water, needing better roads, county services, etc. I am generally a person who’s in favor of progress, but in this case I stand with those who are fighting to preserve the land and the water.

  10. Colin Cowling on March 16th, 2014 11:57 am

    An editorial presented as news and not accurate. Something that the Wave seems to be doing more and more of.

    Please lend substance to your accusation by citing what in the report is “not accurate.” We trust you understand that quoting numerous speakers’ opinions, which constituted most of the story, is very far removed from an “editorial.” –EDITOR

  11. Thomas Haney on March 18th, 2014 11:45 am

    After reading the summary of changes that on are the table, it looks like an attempt to completely change the character of the shore, and essentially destroy what makes it a wonderful place in my opinion. Can you explain how some group was able to put this together and push it forward so quickly, with people who live here caught unaware and then scrambling to catch up. My guess is there’s a lot of money backing it, but it seems like the kind of proposal that should have gone straight in the trashcan, instead of being fast tracked to implementation.