By Stefanie Jackson – Eastern Shore citizens and civic leaders got the opportunity on April 23 to ask a panel of state and local politicians what government is doing about current issues, at the Eggs and Issues breakfast organized by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce.
The panel featured Sen. Lynwood Lewis, Del. Robert Bloxom, Chairman Donald Hart of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, and Chairman Spencer Murray of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors.
Lewis said giving rural communities access to high-speed internet, aka broadband, is a “huge nut to crack” financially.
He played a role in establishing the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) that continues to expand the Shore’s infrastructure for high-speed internet, running miles of fiber optic cable down secondary roads and driveways.
The authority provides broadband internet service directly to public schools and offices, businesses, and homes via fiber optic cable, and it enables three local internet service providers to offer customers wireless broadband internet service.
“But we’re still falling short of the mark,” Lewis said. He believes federal funding for broadband infrastructure will be needed to “make a dent in the service areas.”
Lewis agreed with a statement made by Congresswoman Elaine Luria that the funding is likely to come in the form of an overarching infrastructure package that also includes money for roads, bridges, and waterways.
Bloxom added that because technology advances so quickly, it’s difficult to find investors willing to take a chance on “one technology that could conceivably be out-of-date by the time it’s built out.”
Affordable Housing and Wastewater Treatment
Murray acknowledged that finding affordable housing is a challenge on the Eastern Shore. In Northampton, for example, if 75 employees work for one employer, typically only 10 or 15 will be able to find affordable housing near their place of employment, he said.
Concerning affordable housing, “the key to it is infrastructure,” like sewer systems. The alternative of septic systems and mass drain fields isn’t always an option, he said.
Neither is every Eastern Shore town building and maintaining its own sewer system a workable goal, Murray added.
He supports the proposed Hampton Roads Sanitation District project that would take advantage of excess capacity at Onancock’s wastewater treatment plant and use it to serve the towns of Melfa, Nassawadox, and Exmore.
The project would require running a sewage pipe from Nassawadox to Onancock. A feasibility study has been completed, and the project needs federal funding to move forward, Murray said.
However, Bloxom is “a little more optimistic” about being able to pay for the project without federal funding and getting the job done more quickly.
He believes Eastern Shore towns should “get out of the business” of wastewater treatment. “The goal here is to actually lower the cost by bringing in someone who does nothing but treat water full time.”
Lewis said it’s an “all hands on deck” project, with support from Eastern Shore political representatives at all levels.
Hart added that Accomack is also working to address affordable housing needs, with 45 apartments expected to be built near the Virginia State Police barracks in Melfa.
“The reason it will work,” he said, is the apartment complex will connect to the sewage system at the nearby industrial park next to the Eastern Shore Community College.
Hart acknowledged that more work- force housing is also needed near Wallops Island so employees can both work and live in Virginia instead of crossing the border into Maryland.
The panelists recognized that stormwater drainage is a problem that recently has been worsened by frequent heavy rains, but they had few answers for constituents on April 23.
“Whoever’s praying for rain, please stop,” Murray quipped. He noted that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) performs less ditch maintenance now than it did in the past, and Northampton County lacks the capacity to dig out and clean out ditches.
Northampton is seeking clarity on conflicting regulations for stormwater drainage, and Accomack is also working with VDOT to find solutions.
One measure that Northampton County is able to take to improve drainage is cleaning trash out of culverts (wide, underground pipes that allow stormwater to flow under roads).
But litter is found throughout Accomack and Northampton counties.
“It is one of the biggest statements that we can make to people who come to the Shore,” Murray commented.
“I’ve always said, we’re poor, but we don’t have to look as poor as we are. And litter everywhere shows a disregard for our property and our land.”
In Accomack, the sheriff’s department allows nonviolent inmates to pick up litter along roads, under supervision. Accomack’s public works department assists the sheriff’s department in its efforts, Hart said.
“One thing that frustrates the board a lot is that we’ll see bags of trash within a half mile or a quarter mile of a convenience center.”
He wants to get Accomack schools onboard with a program starting in pre- K that teaches kids about littering and encourages them “to keep Mommy and Daddy and their brothers and sisters from throwing trash out of the car.”
“A lot of this is learned. You finish your McDonald’s, you throw it out the window,” he said.
Hart has seen clean roadsides become littered again within a couple days to a week. He hopes that educating children will help break the cycle.