By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton County Board of Supervisors has two candidates, David Kabler and Dixon Leatherbury, vying for its District 4 seat.
They faced off at a forum hosted by Citizens For a Better Eastern Shore Oct. 17 at Occohannock Elementary School after introducing themselves to the audience.
Leatherbury grew up on the Eastern Shore, and the Machipongo farmer is the current chair of the Northampton planning commission.
Kabler moved from Virginia Beach to the Shore about 30 years ago. He also lives in Machipongo and is a real estate agent. He is the current chair of the Northampton County Parks and Recreation advisory board.
The candidates alternated as the first to answer each question. The first three questions and topics of discussion were provided in advance.
Town Hall Meetings
Leatherbury did not advocate specifically for town hall meetings, but he supports an “open-door policy” for discussing county issues with citizens. He plans to provide his email address and cell phone number to his constituents, and he noted citizen input is welcomed at all public meetings.
Kabler said he would host meetings for issues of “widespread community interest” such as Northampton’s comprehensive plan or zoning ordinance, major infrastructure projects, and town or county debt.
Declining and Aging Population
To serve the elderly better, Kabler called for more EMS training and equipment and possible expansion of an “unsung hero,” Star Transit.
A community center would provide the elderly – and all citizens – opportunities for recreation, socialization, exercise, and health screenings, he said.
He encourages youth who go off to college to return to the Shore as teachers, medical professionals, and business owners.
“One major decision the county faces is whether we wish to be a retirement community or a viable and dynamic place for people of all ages to live,” Leatherbury said.
He agreed Star Transit is a “real gem” and said the county should reduce the need for public transportation by developing town edge districts (areas adjacent to incorporated towns), including building multi-family housing and businesses within walking distance of one another.
Leatherbury said the county shouldn’t spend money on unnecessary projects in “threatened areas.” He recommended enforcing the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and reconsidering which lots the county considers “buildable.”
“I understand the allure of waterfront property. It’s beautiful and relaxing and can provide recreation. However, it comes with its own set of risks to its owners.”
Kabler added that waterfront property owners should be aware that first responders may not be able to reach them in an emergency. The comprehensive plan must include a plan to combat sea-level rise and recurrent flooding, and high residential density in flood-prone areas should be discouraged.
The remaining questions were written and submitted by audience members.
Poultry House Setbacks
Kabler identified Northampton’s current, “healthy” poultry house setbacks as 1,000 feet from a property line or road, 1,500 feet from a town, and 2,000 feet from the shoreline. He is a “staunch opponent” of poultry houses as they exist in Accomack County.
The question suggested that Leatherbury advocates for a 200-foot poultry house setback, but he rejected the notion and called the current setbacks a “closed issue.”
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) is building out its infrastructure and providing public institutions and private businesses and homes with direct access to high-speed internet via fiber optic cable.
Leatherbury said ESVBA is “doing a great job, and they’re doing it without being subsidized by the county.” He acknowledged that ESVBA managers cannot speed up the buildout or they will “burn up all of their capital and not be able to continue operation.”
Kabler added that the county cannot speed up the extension of its fiber optics, but it can support a technology center that will feature broadband access and shared workspaces. Such a facility is planned for Exmore.
The candidates were asked which issues have been largely “ignored” in Northampton County.
Early childhood education was Kabler’s answer. He believes Northampton should have more public educational services for young children with “autism and other types of disabilities” like his 6-year-old grandson, who receives services in Accomack. “Northampton needs to do a better job at that,” Kabler said.
The housing gap was Leatherbury’s answer. About 24% of Northampton citizens live in poverty, and even “moderate income” individuals like teachers have difficulty affording homes due to the cost of living rising faster than wages, he said. Leatherbury called for more affordable housing and subsidized housing.
One question regarded retaining teachers and improving classroom morale.
Leatherbury seemed to favor local funding for teacher raises, although he found morale to be sufficient. “I see these teachers with smiling faces, and I see students with the same thing. I think morale is great.”
Kabler said, “The future of Northampton County Public Schools depends a lot on increased attendance, increased enrollment.”
He suggested that implementing the free breakfast and lunch program (Community Eligibility Provision) would boost school attendance, and improving infrastructure would attract young families and increase enrollment.
County and Town Relationships
“Cape Charles is a shining light in this county,” Kabler said. It’s a “perfect example” of a town working with its county.
He advised county supervisors to attend town council meetings to get a better understanding of community needs and noted he recently attended an Exmore town council meeting.
Leatherbury called for better communication regarding town needs and the county’s ability to fill those needs.
The type of economic development Leatherbury would like to see is “light industry” that doesn’t require high water use, pollute the water, or compete with aquaculture for natural resources.
Kabler wants more tourism, entrepreneurism, specialty manufacturing, and scientific research.
The candidates were asked if they believe AFDs (Agricultural-Forestal Districts) create tax breaks for the wealthy.
Kabler said farmers deserve tax breaks and farm land does not use many public services. AFDs help preserve open space and “rural character” and promote tourism.
Leatherbury also supported AFDs and added that Northampton farmers pay one of the highest tax rates on farm machinery in the state or country.
Leatherbury said Northampton also pays high real estate taxes compared to other Virginia counties, and its budget relies heavily on those taxes.
“The homeowner cannot bear the full burden” of county expenses, he said. More tax revenue should come from businesses. He supports moderate increases in meals and transient occupancy taxes so tourists pay their “fair share.”
“So that we don’t have to raise taxes, we really must raise revenue,” Kabler said. The top three industries, agriculture, aquaculture, and tourism, need support and new ideas for generating revenue, he said. His suggestions include growing hemp and using hydroponics, as well as providing more education and workforce training.
Northampton’s greatest infrastructure need is its public schools, Kabler said. Supervisors recently approved spending more than $28 million for renovation and construction at the Northampton High School complex that will be “state-of-the-art.”
The county also needs a community center to provide recreation for young and old alike, he said.
Leatherbury said the county’s greatest infrastructure need is a public sewer system to serve multi-family housing in and around towns and to protect Northampton’s waters and aquaculture industry.
Public Education Funding
Leatherbury did not believe he was adequately equipped to decide if the county is providing sufficient funding for public education, but he commended nonprofit Northampton County Education Foundation for supplementing public education through grants.
Kabler observed that the county gives more local funding for its public schools than the state requires; therefore, the amount of local funding is adequate.
The former Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital building in Nassawadox is a “white elephant” that would be difficult to repurpose, Kabler said.
Leatherbury agreed and pointed out that Riverside owns the building and its accompanying sewer system, which still serves the Heritage Hall nursing home and other facilities on Hospital Avenue.
One audience member asked what the county should do about competing uses in Northampton’s creeks; VMRC (Virginia Marine Resource Commission) rents out the creek bottoms for shellfish grounds.
“Do we want aquaculture … or do we want tourism?” Leatherbury asked. He believes aquaculture is a more profitable use of the creeks and the Chesapeake Bay is suitable for recreation.
Kabler touted aquaculture as a fast-growing, clean industry. He noted the creek bottoms are not under county control, but concerns may be relayed to VMRC.
“It’s not about cutting expenses, I think our administration is doing a great job at that,” Kabler said. “So, how do we raise revenue? That’s really the big question here.”
Leatherbury added that many county staff salaries are set by the state, as well as the required number of sheriff’s deputies. He suspects that county supervisors are “running a pretty tight ship on expenses” already.
An audience member asked if Northampton would consider following other Virginia counties in obtaining special financing for teacher housing.
“The county does not need to be in the housing business,” Leatherbury said, although it can be the catalyst for building teacher housing.
Kabler said multi-family housing needs central water and sewer service to be affordable, and the county must stay apprised of federal and state funding opportunities, which are scarce.
When asked if he would support a change in state law requiring state parks like Kiptopeke to collect TOT taxes (transient occupancy taxes) as other campgrounds do, Leatherbury gave an “easy yes” to additional county revenue.
Kabler was unsure if a public park should have to collect TOT taxes like a private park, and he said he is neutral on the subject.
During his closing remarks, Kabler invited everyone to “participate in the county’s future” by visiting the Northampton County website and taking the survey on the comprehensive plan. “Your voice will count this time,” he assured citizens.
Leatherbury confirmed that the updated comprehensive plan will address new issues like sea-level rise and said he is committed to “transparency in this government and every government in this country.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5, and the polls in Northampton County will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.