Two County Supervisors May Have Conflict of Interest
June 15, 2015
The June 9 meeting of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors was rather lively. As this would be the last time that residents could address the BOS before staff sends the rezoning scheme out for public comment, many speakers took to the podium to relay their opposition to the widespread plan to industrialize our farmland, among other changes. Those commenting included three former planning commissioners, a marine scientist, two heads of local civic organizations, and other landowners who feared their investments in this county were being jeopardized.
Nearly all of the speakers questioned the Board’s motives for changing the land use rules which currently protect property rights and our limited natural resources (the aquifer and clean coastal waters), all without our consent. Near the end of the citizen comment period, I addressed the Board with what I thought might be in part driving the changes, and I appreciate this opportunity to more fully flesh out my presentation.
Shortly after buying our building next to the Post Office in Exmore in 2008, during a meeting of a local citizens group we became aware of a project called the Exmore Energy Project. The plan was announced at that meeting by a representative of the Bay Coast Railroad. The proposal was called a “Bio Diesel plant” and would manufacture a diesel additive by refining waste oil from the Norfolk Oil Transport Company. The waste product would be railed to the site (next to our shop and in the middle of town), mixed with methanol and other additives, heated, filtered, and stored.
As I had experience with these oil refineries while working for county government in our rural upstate New York county, I quickly concluded that the project was not a good fit for the middle of a business district. Working with other citizens in the town and Virginia DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality], we encouraged Bay Coast and the Norfolk concern to abandon their plans.
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It was with great surprise when we finally read the BOS new zoning plans last year to find that “biomass conversion to alternative fuel” was to be allowed in every zoning district “by right” — no notice to neighbors, no local permit needed. That means facilities like the Exmore Energy Project had a green light in villages, hamlets, waterfronts, residential, and every other zone.
Again, working with citizens and DEQ, we encouraged the Board to jettison that hare-brained scheme. But we were just as surprised to see the plan emerge under the new heading “waste related” in agricultural and commercial areas. When we explained to the BOS that the new language would allow hazardous, municipal, chicken litter, and medical waste incinerators as well as biodiesel plants, thanks to Supervisor [Larry] Trala that term was taken out.
But the BOS inserted a new shell in the game, called “waste management,” which includes in its definition “resource recovery,” which would allow all of the uses under the two previous terms. So we now find ourselves back to square one, with apparently no rhyme or reason.
Is it just coincidence that the use that would allow biodiesel refineries, enabling Bay Coast railroad to transport waste oil into our county, keeps coming up in Frankenstein fashion? And is it just happenstance that last week, county staff told a former planning commissioner that they will not remove new [proposed] rules that will allow the import of waste into the county? Maybe. But maybe not.
You would have to be rather removed from reality if you did not deduce that there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest when the President of Bay Coast Railroad was the Chairman of the BOS during the drafting and orchestration of the proposed zoning manifesto. The Virginia State and Local Conflict of Interest Act speaks to the issue of even creating the appearance of using your public office for private interest or gain. My position is that Mr. [Larry] LeMond should have recused himself from any vote on the new zoning proposal, including refraining from the vote to call the BOS the “applicant” in this rezoning charade. I am certainly not saying that sacks of money have exchanged hands in the dark and smoky rooms of the administrative halls. I am saying that elected officials need to instill confidence in their constituents that their legislative actions are driven solely by the public interest.
Conflict of interest again surfaced when the current chairman of the BOS [Rick Hubbard] allegedly told a constituent that he supported the new zoning ordinance because it would allow him to build more houses on his 34 acres so he could leave his estate to more than just one of his sons. Again, the conflict of interest rules in Virginia require that, at the very least, an elected official refrain from voting on an issue or legislation that will benefit him or her personally. Remember, the Supervisors ARE the applicant in this rezoning fiasco, so the conflict of interest issue hits a bit closer to home.
Most of us who have spent time reading the many iterations of the new zoning proposal keep scratching our heads as to the motives behind the county’s unilateral attempt to industrialize, commercialize, exploit, and overbuild Northampton County. Perhaps its time that we peel back the covers and more fully understand the fuel that keeps driving this process forward. At the very least, we need to ensure that our elected leaders who at least appear to have “skin in the game” recuse themselves from voting on this issue in future deliberations.