By Stefanie Jackson – Five candidates for the Cape Charles town council participated in an online forum May 9 and explained their positions on numerous issues including the struggling town harbor, tourism, jobs, and affordable housing.
The participating candidates were Steve Bennett, a current town councilman who holds degrees in structural engineering and business; Charles “Sambo” Brown, a former town councilman and retired police chief; Andy Buchholz, a current town councilman and local business owner; Andrew Follmer, who owns two businesses on Mason Avenue; and Herb Thom, a former employee of Bayshore Concrete.
The event was organized by Karen Zamorski, director of Cape Charles Main Street, and moderated by Wayne Bell Jr.
Cape Charles’ ability to return to a sense of normalcy following the novel coronavirus pandemic will rely largely on following state guidelines issued by Gov. Ralph Northam, Buchholz said.
Bennett said Cape Charles must find innovative ways to continue to operate within the confines of Northam’s executive orders.
Thom called on his fellow citizens to show discipline and protect the town.
Brown emphasized reopening the beach and fishing pier as soon as possible.
Follmer said “information is power” and communicating expectations to visitors should be consistent as the town redefines its sense of normalcy.
Buchholz had one word for a question about striking a balance in the local workforce between tourism and other industries: education. Good schools will attract families with children, increase the labor pool, and lead to a “bright future” for Cape Charles, he said.
Follmer agreed and added that broadband internet is also needed.
Bennett referred to the south side of the harbor – the yacht center and concrete plant – as a potential source of new jobs. Cape Charles is also a good choice for residents who want to work from home or commute across the bay, he said.
Brown said Cape Charles needs a 24/7 medical facility, which could provide additional jobs.
Cape Charles vs. Mason Avenue
All the candidates agreed on the importance of getting to know Cape Charles as a whole and not focusing solely on Mason Avenue.
Follmer said people come to Cape Charles for the “small-town experience,” not its “commercial strip.”
Thom added that people who move to Cape Charles to retire appreciate its “historic value”.
Bennett said Cape Charles, with its harbor, beach, and water and wastewater plants, is “incredibly diverse.” He dubbed the tiny tourist town a “microcosm of Virginia Beach.”
Buchholz agreed and named the marina, harbor, Bay Creek, beach, boardwalk, nature trails, and fishing pier among the town’s many attractions. He was concerned that all the items he mentioned require maintenance, but Cape Charles’ budget is “shot” due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brown was the only candidate who was “totally against” hiring a private company to manage the town harbor. He was concerned about Cape Charles surrendering control of its harbor.
Bennett pointed out that harbor revenues have decreased while maintenance costs have increased. The harbor should be managed by a professional company with a large staff and strong marketing skills, he said.
Buchholz agreed and said Cape Charles needs more boats coming to the harbor, because that will mean more revenue not just for the harbor but for restaurants and shops.
Follmer clarified that outsourcing harbor management would not mean surrendering control because contractors would be held accountable for their work “like anyone else.”
The harbor is the “jewel in our crown,” he said.
Bennett is opposed to annexing surrounding communities like the Route 184 corridor and making them part of Cape Charles. He has talked to people who live in the communities and they also oppose the idea.
The town would be responsible to provide utilities to the communities, and annexation is “not worth the effort,” he said.
Follmer agreed annexation shouldn’t be considered if “the people don’t want it” and it would “overtax resources.”
Brown opposes annexation but would consider a town boundary adjustment. Buchholz pointed out that a boundary adjustment would also require the town to extend utilities. He may be willing to consider a boundary adjustment in the “distant future.”
Thom was the only proponent of annexation. He believes in annexing the area from Stone Road to Route 13, allowing Cape Charles to capture more tax revenue from Kings Creek and the future YMCA.
Bennett noted Cape Charles’ police force was recently increased from five to six officers. The candidates seemed to agree that the police force is adequate during the “off season,” but more officers are needed during tourist season – especially at night, Thom added.
Bennett also said that often, only one officer is on duty during the day, and if the officer is busy processing an arrest, the town is temporarily left with no one on patrol.
Follmer favored a “data-driven” response and recommended that the town council create performance indicators for evaluating the police force.
Thom suggested requiring town vehicle decals as a way to identify which vehicles belong to residents when addressing parking issues.
He said the town needs a parking lot or a trolley, or both. Boat parking is also needed. He does not approve of eliminating the back-in parking on Mason Avenue because of the dangers of backing out into traffic.
Follmer, who was part of a campaign to “reverse the reverse” angle parking, said business owners must stop using the “prime parking” and leave it open for customers.
Buchholz said Cape Charles already has a parking lot with more than 80 spaces that are largely unused, and signs are needed to direct drivers to the lot before they pass it.
Bennett also mentioned the parking lot, which is behind the town’s medical center, and he noted there is room for additional parking behind the library. He acknowledged that finding space for the boats and multiple vehicles brought by summer renters is an issue.
Bennett said the town council has changed regulations to allow construction of more accessory dwelling units for affordable housing.
He announced that Bay Creek is “interested in partnering with the town to potentially develop a small piece of their property for that purpose,” meaning affordable housing.
Buchholz said Cape Charles must find developers willing to take the risk of building affordable housing.
He also pointed out that the town council cannot impose rent limits because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state (meaning local governments are limited to the powers granted them by the state) and Virginia has no rent control law.
Thom observed that land is available in nearby areas like Cheriton, where workers can obtain or build homes.
Follmer said he’s interested in “land-use trusts” related to affordable housing.
(A nonprofit organization can use a community land trust to provide affordable housing. Under such an agreement, the nonprofit owns the land and the clients own the homes. The clients get affordable housing prices by agreeing to resell the homes for the same prices they paid.)
Each candidate was asked to name one project he would like to start immediately in Cape Charles.
Buchholz and Thom would both like to help turn around the harbor.
Brown would work on bringing a 24/7 medical facility to the town, and Bennett would like to build a new town hall, because the conditions of the current facility are “marginal at best.”
Follmer would begin developing a “communications strategy” to eliminate community spread of “misinformation and confusion” about town business.