By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton citizens attended a meeting hosted by the Berkley Group consulting firm Tuesday night, and they participated in a small-group activity that provided insight on how the county comprehensive plan should be updated.
The comprehensive plan will undergo changes with “meaningful public input as a cornerstone,” Berkley Group CEO Darren Coffey said.
Before beginning the small-group exercise, Coffey informed citizens on the progress of the comprehensive plan update.
Starting in September, the Berkley Group surveyed Northampton citizens about their impressions of the county’s strengths and weaknesses.
As of Nov. 19, 593 people had completed the survey, including 467 surveys taken online at Northampton County’s official website and 126 written surveys.
Nearly 13% of the surveys were completed in Spanish.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Northampton’s population was about 11,850 in 2017. Nearly 600 people, or about 5% of the county’s total population, completed a survey.
Coffey said that’s an “excellent participation rate” in his line of work, contradicting the doubt expressed by some audience members.
A fairly even distribution of age groups answered the survey. Less than 10% of the respondents were under age 20. Adults between the ages of 20 and 29 also accounted for less than 10% of participants.
The age groups of 30 to 39, 40 to 49, 50 to 59, and 60 to 69 each completed about 20% of the surveys. About 10% of the respondents were between the ages of 70 and 79. A few participants were age 80 or older.
About 30% live in Cape Charles, 20% in Eastville, 17% in Exmore, 13% in Cheriton, and 10% in Nassawadox.
According to the survey results, the three best qualities of Northampton County are its rural character, sense of community, and access to the water.
The top three areas of concern to Northampton citizens are the county’s public schools, job opportunities, and access to healthcare.
A large majority, 70% of respondents, want the comprehensive plan to focus on schools.
About 50% want economic development – any kind of economic development – including more restaurants, retail stores, professional services, and healthcare services.
A majority also sees a need for all types of housing, including single family homes, duplexes and townhouses, apartments, and retirement communities.
The Berkley Group’s next steps will be to close the survey period and conduct interviews with citizens, Coffey said.
But several audience members were concerned that not enough people had received the opportunity to complete a survey, especially those without access to a computer or the internet.
Northampton Deputy Administrator Janice Williams said hard copies of the survey were available at the county administration building, and letters had been sent to every Northampton church on record to inform congregations about the survey.
The Rev. Kelvin Jones, of First Baptist Church in Capeville, said that information was incorrect, and many members of the African American community did not know about the first meeting on the comprehensive plan, which the Berkley Group held in September.
Coffey said he would recommend the board of supervisors extend the survey period until the end of November.
Following his presentation, small groups gathered around poster-size maps of Northampton County and used multi-colored highlighters to circle the towns that they believe most need improvement in economic development, recreation facilities, trails, natural preservation, safety of motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, and miscellaneous areas of concern.
After about 45 minutes, a representative of each small group reported to the whole group.
The consensus appeared to be that Exmore and Nassawadox were the two towns most ready for or in need of economic development.
Arthur Upshur’s group noted that Exmore is a central location on the Eastern Shore with business infrastructure in place – namely, empty buildings in its downtown waiting to be filled.
In addition to Exmore and Nassawadox, Eastville was named as needing economic growth because employees of the new Eastville Community Health Center will need places to eat and shop.
Cape Charles – where economic growth has been concentrated – has become a tourist center lacking affordable housing, the small groups appeared to agree.
There was concern that more homes being used as Airbnb vacation rentals mean fewer homes that could provide affordable housing for families.
Skilled tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians are needed in Northampton’s workforce, one group leader said.
Upshur’s group suggested building a Northampton campus of Eastern Shore Community College to teach students those trades and help them find jobs in the county after completing their training.
Broadband internet access will give students more learning opportunities, and it will enable people to stay or move here and open an online business or work from home, group members said.
Cape Charles and Exmore were named as the two towns with the most traffic problems. Cape Charles hosts the majority of tourists visiting Northampton, Exmore has three major hotel chains, and the towns have the two largest shopping centers in the county.
Safer options are also needed for residents of towns to cross the highway on foot, on a bicycle, or in a wheelchair, participants said.
It was noted that Eastville has a high potential for future traffic issues because of poor access between the new health center and the highway.
Expansion of Star Transit was recommended to improve transportation. The public bus system currently does not operate on nights or weekends.
Some participants called for daycare for seniors and more after-school programs for children.
There was support for the new YMCA coming to the Cape Charles area and for the former Northampton Middle School in Machipongo providing opportunities for recreation. Citizens also were in favor of the “rails to trails” program.
Northampton citizens said they want “livable communities” – areas with housing, stores, and restaurants within walking distance.
They supported protecting the Eastern Shore’s sole-source aquifer and safeguarding the coasts against overdevelopment and sea-level rise, preserving both the seaside and bayside.
The Nature Conservancy was commended on its restoration of eelgrass, a habitat for bay scallops. Not only will this effort help preserve nature, it could lead to the expansion of the Shore’s aquaculture industry that is currently dominated by oysters and clams.
A church pastor offered a different perspective.
“We talk about preservation,” Jones said. “If we don’t have any dignity, which comes along with a good job, if we don’t have housing – then having a bike trail doesn’t matter, having aquaculture doesn’t matter.”
“A suggestion is that we look at how do we preserve the people of Northampton County, give them dignity, give them jobs, give them housing, and when you pour into them, they’ll give you back what you need for your community.”
Coffey called Jones’ remarks “a tough act to follow.”
The Northampton board of supervisors and planning commission were scheduled to hold a joint work session on the comprehensive plan Nov. 20 in the Northampton High School auditorium.
Additional work sessions will follow in January, March, May, and July. Public comments are not taken at work sessions, but the public is welcome to attend.
A public open house will be held in mid-to-late summer 2020 for all who wish to view the draft of the comprehensive plan, with public hearings to follow for citizens to comment on any changes they would like made to the plan.
To complete an online survey about the comprehensive plan, visit https://www.co.northampton.va.us/
To request hard copies of the survey, see Janice Williams at the Northampton County administration building, 16404 Courthouse Road, Eastville, or call 757-678-0440 ext. 516.