GUEST EDITORIAL: Prisons vs. Prosperity
May 11, 2015
We understand that two Northampton Supervisors recently lamented in a public meeting the county’s decision back in the mid-1990s not to allow a state prison to be built here. What’s happened to the counties which were included in the state’s prison building boom over the last 30 years? Did the promises of jobs, economic development and state-provided benefits meet expectations? Not so much.
And not for many rural counties. Localities were looking at prisons as economic engines back then, and Northampton County’s refusal to take the bait in 1993 was considered Wise County’s windfall. By the middle of the decade Wise county had not one, but two so-called “Super Max” prisons. Greensville, Buchanan and Mecklenberg Counties, all rural, had one state prison each, and the correctional system was often the largest employer in the county.
Then the prison population started to fall off – court imposed sentences became shorter, the crime rate fell and in the midst of lawsuits against the Commonwealth for unacceptable treatment of inmates, other states took back their farmed-out prisoners.
Former Governor McDonnell closed the Mecklenburg prison, nearly bankrupting the town of Boydton. The town relied heavily on the prison’s sewage payments to support their town budget, and was left with a $1.4 million debt for sewer lines to the prison. One of the Wise County prisons was downgraded, causing layoffs and long-term unemployment. The state prison in Pittsylvania County closed less than 10 years after it was built, and a brand new facility in Grayson County has never opened.
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How have the residents of these rural “prison counties” fared? Over the past several years Wise, Buchanan, Greensville and Mecklenburg counties remained near the bottom in state poverty rankings. The per capita income in these four “prison counties” and Pittsylvania County was as much as 20% lower than in Northampton. And in spite of high numbers of corrections employees, the unemployment rates for many prison economy counties was up to 4% higher than Northampton’s over the past several years (perhaps suggesting out-of-area workers). Inmates, of course, are not factored into these figures.
The Virginia Department of Corrections has not proven to be a reliable partner in many rural counties. Northampton County leaders made the decision two decades ago to forego a one-industry economy, thereby avoiding the pitfalls other localities are facing now. The subsequent growth of the county’s asset-based local economy, especially aquaculture and tourism, has demonstrated an option for diversity that many rural counties with few assets, have been unable to achieve.
“Waste” – by any name, it’s still garbage. The current Northampton zoning ordinance carefully defines all the ways the county handles its waste disposal needs – sewage treatment, recycling, convenience centers and the landfill. The proposed county rezoning tries to redefine, and apparently expand, the role of “waste” in the county through several changes.
First proposed change: “Waste-related. Matters dealing with domestic, commercial and industrial waste.”
Second proposed change: “Waste management. The collection, source separation, storage, transportation, transfer, processing, treatment and disposal of waste or resource recovery.”
The Board of Supervisors reached consensus on the second change above, which includes a “resource recovery” phrase, without seeming to realize it was a reworded version of the first try. They agreed that this change would address the large number of com- ments opposing this open-ended language. It doesn’t. The Resource and Recovery Act allows private handlers and disposal concerns to operate incinerators and waste treatment facilities.
While the current ordinance provides several ways to handle county waste, the new definition opens wide the doors to com- mercial and industrial waste disposal operations – no matter what it is, no matter where it comes from. No details, no performance standards, no impact review on ground or surface water, and no impervious surface limits are listed in the proposed zoning for any new, for-profit waste enterprises.
If the county intends to responsibly manage its own waste needs, here’s the only definition needed:
Waste disposal – to provide for the management, operation and expansion of the county’s waste disposal needs to include: waste water treatment facilities; county-owned and operated convenience centers for the collection and transfer of county solid waste including recyclables; temporary hazardous waste collection events; and the existing county-owned sanitary landfill.
Any other commercial or industrial waste-related use would logically come forward as an application for a zoning text amendment, for a clearly defined use, with appropriate performance standards, as part of a specific proposed project.
Reprinted by permission from ShoreLine, the newsletter of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES).