By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton board of supervisors approved rezoning that will allow gas station and convenience store chain Royal Farms to apply for permits to build a third location in the county, about seven miles from its Kiptopeke store.
“Unless we do things like this and invite sensible development on Route 13 in places where it’s safe, we will continue to raise property taxes and we won’t have the sales tax income and everything else that we need to move forward,” said Chairman Spencer Murray Nov. 14.
Royal Farms requested the rezoning of 10 acres near Cape Charles from agricultural-rural business to commercial use. Combined with an adjacent three acres that is already commercially zoned, Royal Farms will have 13 acres on which to build its business.
The parcels are on Route 13, at the highway’s intersection with Bayview Circle. The Royal Farms property is on the south side of the crossroad, with Corner Mart on the north side.
Rezoning the parcel would be consistent with the other commercial uses in the immediate area, Supervisor John Coker said, and the parcel in question was zoned for commercial use previously.
In an unconventional move, supervisors submitted the zoning application on behalf of Royal Farms. That drew criticism from one citizen during a public hearing.
Granville Hogg, of Cheriton, said the board cannot be an applicant, according to Section B of the zoning application.
An applicant may be “a consultant, a person with power of attorney, a leaseholder, a renter, and a contract purchaser,” he read.
But the board of supervisors submitting a zoning application is not without precedent. The board has used the application previously to submit proposed changes to the county’s zoning ordinance.
The difference in this case is that supervisors are intervening on behalf of a single entity instead of the entire county.
“The reason we helped them out here … we saved them probably $100,000 in engineering fees up front,” Coker explained.
If Royal Farms had submitted the zoning application, it would have been required to include fully engineered plans for the building.
“They didn’t want to do it unless they knew they were going to be able to build it there,” he said.
The board of supervisors has tasked the county planning commission with reviewing a proposal to no longer require fully engineered construction plans with zoning applications for special-use permits.
“So that offer’s open to anybody?” Supervisor Robert Duer asked. “Yes,” Murray said.
“Northampton County Board of Supervisors is acting as an applicant and a decision-maker. How much impartiality can this decision receive?” Hogg asked.
“It appears as a conflict of interest by the governing body, and that question should be directed to the board’s legal counsel prior to further discussion,” he said.
“There’s an appearance that the chairman supports recreating the same traffic signal issue that exists less than 2,000 feet north to the entrance of the Mcdonald’s and Food Lion shopping area,” Hogg added.
Bill Parr, of Seaview, pointed out that no special-use permit had been granted, and supervisors’ approval of the zoning change would only be “step one” of the building project.
For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation will conduct traffic studies of the area to ensure safety and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will require a stormwater management plan, he noted.
“Every community that I’m aware of is interested in shifting its tax base,” Parr said.
When commercial business “carries the load” it lightens the tax burden on farmers and residents, he said.
“This is exactly what economic development is about.”
Ken Dufty, of Wardtown, said, “My issue here is that our current comprehensive plan encourages growth and development in the towns and off of 13, and I understand that. The other side of that is this county needs revenue.”
Supervisor Oliver Bennett said, “In order for Northampton to grow, and to expand, and to pay bills, we need new money. This is new money.”
Royal Farms employs more than 40 people in Northampton County, according to a letter from the company’s owner, John Kemp.
The new store will create additional jobs and generate more sales tax revenue, Murray said.
During the update of Northampton’s comprehensive plan, “I think we’re going to have to look very, very hard at Route 13 and what we can do with safe access,” he added.
Duer questioned Kemp’s statement in his letter that Northampton “should provide us with the necessary commercial zoning on its own accord … otherwise, it is very unlikely that we will make any further investment, and the county will lose an important opportunity to build both its tax base and its employment base as well.”
“I don’t take it as a threat,” Murray said.
Royal Farms has been a “good neighbor” who has supported the community, he said.
Kemp is considering using the additional 10 acres of land for a solar farm to help make the business self-sustaining, Coker said.
“They don’t want to be viewed as just selling gas, they want to be viewed as good environmental and corporate citizens.”
“This drives developers off,” Murray said of the current zoning code. “If I have to spend thousands of dollars on something before I know whether I’m even going to get a special-use permit – hundreds of thousands of dollars – I’m not going to do it. I’ve got other places I can go and spend my capital.”
Coker said, “We’re just trying to make it more business-friendly. We’re trying to create a situation where people can tell us what they want to do, and if it’s reasonable, then we’ll let it move forward.”