Comp Plan Hearing Highlights Conflict Between Northampton Factions

By Stefanie Jackson — A public hearing on Northampton’s comprehensive plan held by the county planning commission Aug. 7 in the Northampton Middle School auditorium appeared to accomplish little more than highlight the conflict between the commissioners rewriting the plan and the citizens whose interests the plan is intended to protect.
The first sign of conflict appeared at the beginning of the meeting. A complaint about the comprehensive plan often repeated by Northampton citizens is the lack of public input in its rewrite. After the meeting began nearly 20 minutes late due to difficulty unlocking the building, Chairman Mark Freeze spent another five minutes reading the list of names of individuals and organizations who provided input on the plan.
“Can I say something?” Sandra Beerends interrupted. “We know how to read and we have a copy of it.”
“I’m reading it into the record,” Freeze responded.
Later, Andrew Barbour said, “You’re trying to justify that you have citizen input. … My name was on there, and I don’t really feel like I had a huge amount of input.”
He called the planning commission’s consideration of public comments from its monthly meetings as part of the “input package” for the comprehensive plan “nonsense” and said, “That is not how you generate focused feedback.”
He also questioned the validity of the phone survey conducted six years ago by American Strategies Inc. “ASI is not a survey company,” but “a lobbying group” whose role “is not to sample public opinion, it’s to shape it on behalf of its clients,” Barbour said.
Furthermore, the survey was paid for by the National Association of Realtors at the request of the Eastern Shore Association of Realtors, he added.
There are parts of the plan Barbour agrees with and parts he strongly disagrees with, “but none of that matters because this rewrite should be dead on arrival” because “we have no idea if it accurately reflects the wishes of the citizens of Northampton County.”
The citizen input used from meetings in 2009 is “useless, if not deliberately misleading” and came just one year after the Great Recession, Barbour said. “That’s why everyone talks about how ugly and depressing” the comprehensive plan is. “This is not the same county.”
Andrew Follmer called Freeze’s reading of the list of contributors to the comprehensive plan a “disgraceful and disingenuous display” and said, “The only reason to use data that is more than five years old for an exercise that is legally required to be completed every five years is cherry-picking.”
Martina Coker disagreed with the plan’s statement that “entrepreneurial activity may indicate underlying economic problems” and pointed out that New Ravenna and Moonrise Jewelry, which the plan calls successful manufacturing companies, both were started by entrepreneurs. She also found the de-emphasis of entrepreneurship in the plan “ironic” considering Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent visit to the Eastern Shore to celebrate the opening of 14 new businesses in Cape Charles, all begun by local entrepreneurs.
David Boyd added that when jobs are counted in the comprehensive plan, any kind of self-employment is excluded, discounting nearly all aquaculture, ecotourism, and local artisans. “No wonder they think we’re hurting for jobs,” he said.
Other concerns about the comprehensive plan were the apparent exclusion of the visions of the working waterfront villages of Willis Wharf and Oyster, and the reclassification of 36 hamlets as villages, which would double housing density in many flood-prone areas.
There was also conflict between the planning commission and its own staff. Commissioner Kay Downing blamed Senior Planner Kelley Lewis Parks for not having a PowerPoint presentation on the proposed changes to the comprehensive plan ready for public view.
When Parks asked when the request was made, Downing answered, “At our work sessions. That’s it, I’m not hearing anymore.”

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