Northampton Supervisors Reject Comprehensive Plan Re-Write

By Stefanie Jackson — In a unanimous decision Tuesday night, Northampton supervisors rejected the planning commission’s update of the county comprehensive plan that has been in the works for six years.

“We think the county needs to go back to the start and begin the process again … with extensive outreach to the community,” said Spencer Murray, chairman of the board of supervisors.

He read a memo listing five “fundamental faults” with the draft comprehensive plan that caused its rejection.

The tone of the comprehensive plan’s introduction is too negative, indicating “current conditions which are not necessarily accurate,” Murray said. The plan also undervalues the tourism and aquaculture industries. “Northampton County faces many challenging issues, but we also have many positive factors working for us,” he added.

The draft plan relies on outdated information that “may not accurately reflect current conditions.” For example, housing values are discussed in the current plan draft using 2014 data, and farming statistics reported in the plan date back to 2012.

Likewise, public input sessions about the updated plan date back to 2012 and “may not accurately reflect current sentiments and positions.” Supervisors want the plan redrafted using recent public input, starting with comments gathered in 2018, which may include public discussion at town hall meetings held in Exmore, Nassawadox, and Cape Charles this November.

Northampton’s comprehensive plan also lacks components required by state law – for example, consideration for the sustainability of “surface and groundwater sources in the county for future development.”

Finally, the plan “does not adequately address the need and the manner for providing for affordable housing in the county,” Murray said.

Supervisor David Fauber, formerly of the planning commission, said, “I just wanted to recognize the hard work that the planning commission put in on this, and I know it’s been a long, arduous task. Unfortunately, the result hasn’t been really what we had wanted.”

The planning commission requested hiring a professional consultant to assist in redrafting the comprehensive plan, and supervisors support the idea.

Murray appointed Fauber and Supervisor John Coker for future collaborations with the planning commission on the comprehensive plan.

Could Court Order Mean New Life for Whispering Pines?

By Linda Cicoira — The Whispering Pines in Tasley was once a booming motel and restaurant, where the Glen Miller Band played, Walter Cronkite dined, and in later years — about three decades ago — Diana Ross lunched on Asian fare, while she considered purchasing property on Cedar Island.

Those days are long gone. Now the site includes charred ruins of a famous arson spree, abandoned and deteriorating buildings with collapsing roofs, rotting mattresses, scattered insulation, mold growth, peeling paint, and piles of trash.

The site is dangerous, has become a place where vagrants congregate, is a local blight, and it is the topic of scorn in videos.

But all that could change in the upcoming months.

Accomack County auctioned the property in 2012 for $28,000 in an attempt to collect around $35,000 in back real estate taxes. The sale fell through when it was realized that the owners of Whispering Pine Inc., and president Dusan Bratic, of Dillsburg, Pa., had filed for bankruptcy.

Years passed, nothing changed, and the condition of the buildings worsened. The corporation had not put the property up for sale. It had not remedied the situation either.

But recent days have brought a brighter outlook. Accomack County Attorney Cela Burge and Treasurer Dana Bundick asked the U.S. District Court in Middle Pennsylvania (through another attorney) to allow them to “exercise any rights … under real estate collection laws.” Chief Bankruptcy Judge Robert N. Opel II signed an order allowing the action earlier this month despite the bankruptcy status.

“There was an opportunity for comments until Nov. 27,” Burge said Tuesday. “None were received.” Burge said Bundick will have to determine whether to proceed directly with a tax sale or to get the property cleaned up before selling.

Bundick said she would not be in charge of a cleanup. That would be up to the county. “The sale would hopefully be held in the next couple of months,” she added.

According to the court request, the property is valued at $232,500. The county’s current claim against the corporation is $49,976.32. Business Loan Center’s claim is $182,939.

David Elliott, of Bloxom, was the winning bidder at the previous auction. He planned to demolish the old buildings. He was not available for comment at press time Thursday.

The Whispering Pines was built in 1932 by Charles F. Russell and was run by the Russell family for more than 40 years. The Russells reportedly sold it in 1972.

The motel is listed as the 66th arson in a spree on nearly 80 arsons reported in Accomack during a 144-day period between late 2012 and early 2013.

NASA Official Pleads Guilty to Theft and Kickbacks

By Linda Cicoira — Steve Eric Kremer was chief of the Range and Mission Management Office at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) where he oversaw $191 million worth of contracts. From 2008 to 2015 he also stole government funds and received kickbacks while being paid a six-figure salary for the Suborbital and Special Orbital Projects Directorate.

The 53-year-old Berlin, Md. man admitted his crimes Tuesday in U.S. District Court, in Norfolk, Va. He pleaded guilty in an agreement with prosecutors and is free on his own recognizance. Senior Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. accepted the plea.

Supervision was not ordered while Kremer is on bond. He is free to travel in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. The engineer had to turn in his passport and was cautioned about bail jumping. Sentencing was set for March.

No promises for sentencing were made. Prosecutors agreed there would be no other charges filed against Kremer “in the Eastern District of Virginia for the specific conduct described in the information or statement of facts.” Kremer also agreed to waive indictment.

The maximum penalty for receipt of gratuities by a public official is two years in prison and a fine of $250,000. The maximum sentence for theft of government funds is 10 years; a $250,000 fine; restitution, which is $19,469 in this case; forfeiture of assets, which is $37,289; and three years of supervised release.

Kremer paid a $200 special assessment and promised to “testify truthfully and completely at any grand juries, trials, or other proceedings.” No one else has been publicly named in connection with the crimes.

According to court records, Kremer and his family annually spent a week at a woman’s vacation home in Cape Charles in return for his helping her company secure work at NASA. The woman also obtained art for Kremer using government funds totaling $17,820.

She and her business were referred to as SC and Firm 2, respectively. The company is “a privately-held small business located in Annapolis, Md., that provides commercial furniture and interior design services to local, state, and federal government agencies.”

Text messages between Kremer and SC helped make the case. One message directed her “to bill this piece of art” to the government contract “but to conceal the true nature of the purchase.” On Oct. 21, 2011, Kremer sent an email to SC directing: “Don’t state that on the quote, please. We need to call it something else.” SC responded, “Listed it as a whiteboard. Not my first time at the rodeo!”

“The next day, Kremer sent SC an email noting that it would ‘look suspicious’ to deliver the piece of art at the same time as legitimately-purchased goods. He then joked, ‘We can work that out in a dark alley in D.C. Haha.’”

Court records stated, “In or about mid-December 2011, SC delivered the personalized artwork to Kremer, along with other interior design supplies for Kremer’s personal use.” She then submitted an invoice for $1,000 for two whiteboards.

Court records also stated Kremer bought himself gift cards under the guise that he and staff needed reference books for the job. Instead, the cards were used to purchase beauty and skincare products, luggage, apparel, footwear, sporting equipment, cell phone accessories, and kitchen appliances.

The engineer awarded contracts for launch range operations support such as radar, telemetry, logistics, tracking, and communications services. The contracts were for services at test facilities and launch control centers. He did this job in 2014 when an Antares rocket exploded on the launchpad.

Keith Koehler, news chief at WFF, wrote in an email Wednesday morning, “NASA can confirm that Mr. Kremer is a former NASA employee who resigned from NASA’s WFF in May 2018.” Records show Kremer holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.

“From approximately December 2013 through March 2015, Kremer directed the purchase of various promotional items to be given to extracurricular organizations involving a member of Kremer’s family and an associate of Kremer’s at WFF,” court records state. “Most, if not all, these promotional items were charged to Project 100 …the funds for these materials ($11,500) came directly from the range operation contracts.” Government monies were not approved to be used in that manner.

From December 2013 to April 2016, Kremer sought funds from two contractors, who were referred to in court records at Firm 1 and 3, for the extracurricular organizations.

Firm 1 “is an aerospace engineering services company located in Columbia, Md., that delivers space and ground range services and base facility services to the Department of Defense, NASA, and civil customers.” It “holds several contracts for operation and maintenance efforts at the WFF, and was the prime contractor” hired by Kremer.

A total of $32,000 in donations was received from Firm 3, a subcontractor of Firm 1. SC’s company provided services through contracts held by the Columbia business.

“The defendant acknowledges that the foregoing statement of facts does not describe all of the defendant’s conduct relating to the offense charged in this case nor does it identify all of the persons with whom the defendant may have engaged in illegal activities,” the plea bargain stated.

“Kremer sent an e-mail to certain employees of Firm 1 … requesting Amazon gift cards be purchased on his behalf which he would purportedly use to purchase electronic reference books … for himself and other … government employees … In total, $7,000 in … cards were procured for Kremer.”

Records state Kremer used the cards for personal use and had the items shipped to his residence. “None of the items … purchased by Kremer …related to work efforts conducted at the WFF.”

On Dec. 7, LJT & Associates, of Columbia, announced on its website that it was awarded a $200 million contract to provide launch range operations support at WFF. The “indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract includes cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price ordering capability over a five-year period.”

Robert Conrad, the company’s president and CEO, stated, “We are excited and honored to continue our support of the WFF Launch Range Operations Contract that provides the East Coast with responsive and critical access to space in support of NASA, commercial and Department of Defense missions … As part of the contract, the company will provide Wallops Range operations and maintenance; support services; training; command, control, communications, information and computer systems services; testing, modifying and installing communications and electronic systems at launch facilities, launch control centers and test facilities; range sustaining engineering services, and space vehicle ground operations support.”