Accomack Supervisors Discuss Child Care Needs, CARES Act, Housing, Rail to Trail Project

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By Carol Vaughn —

Accomack County is in need of more child care options, including for infants and toddlers, according to two speakers during a public comment period at the Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday, Oct. 21.
According to speakers Ann Williams, of Onancock, and Wayne Bell, the closing of Belle Croft Preschool, better known as “Miss Jean’s,” in Accomac would leave a deficit in licensed child care operators who accept the youngest children.
Belle Croft Preschool is not closing, according to a spokesperson for Belle Croft Preschool, Beth Steelman Perry.
Perry in an Oct. 23 Facebook post said: “I became aware of false statements presented to supervisors last evening. The Belle Croft Pre-School is not closing and there are no plans for the school to close. I am on the license to assure that parents, students and staff are supported in the event that Jean Steelman is not able to fulfill the duties as, the state mandated role, Administrator.”
Williams and Bell asked the board of supervisors to support a proposal to establish a Children’s Harbor early childhood education center in Accomack County.
Bell is chief executive officer of the nonprofit Children’s Harbor organization in Hampton Roads.
The organization has been in existence since 1911 and serves more than 500 children in several Hampton Roads localities, Bell said.
“We have a very successful program and we are looking to expand it over here on the Eastern Shore,” he said.
“With Miss Jean’s closing being imminent, the need for child care in Accomack County is dire. Children are being cared for in homes, some of which are regulated, many of which are not. People are caring for too many children in their homes and it’s not a high quality child care experience,” Williams said.
The federally funded Head Start program has spots for 218 children in Accomack and Northampton counties together, Williams said, adding that the head of Head Start told Williams at any given time there are 20 to 25 children on a waiting list.
Williams said they have received letters of support for the project from the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce and the Accomack County Department of Social Services.
Williams did a needs assessment in spring, she said.
“It was pretty overwhelming the number of people who were unhappy with their current child care situation,” she said, adding, “…This is affecting economic development.”
The Children’s Harbor board of directors is willing to consider establishing a center in Accomack County, but their operating budget does not cover capital costs for construction or renovation of an existing building, Williams said.
“We want you all to be aware that we are pursuing this,” Bell said, asking the board for ideas about ways to collaborate.
Chairman C. Reneta Major later in the meeting asked County Administrator Mike Mason to comment on the request.
Mason said a financial contribution “is a very hard thing to do” at present, but one idea is to look how at county-owned assets, such as the former Whispering Pines property or the Eastern Shore Public Library building soon to be vacated in Accomac, could play a role in meeting child care needs in the county.
A competitive request for proposals would be needed, he said.
Supervisor Ron Wolff noted an effort is underway in northern Accomack County to provide child care options, including for Navy personnel and others.
He suggested it would be good to have a meeting with all the groups.
The board by consensus directed staff to prepare recommendations about what role the county could play in incentivizing child care operators.
CARES Act Update
Accomack County has distributed more than $532,000 in federal CARES Act money to small businesses, watermen, and charter boat operators impacted by COVID-19.
Grants were awarded to 67 watermen totaling $318,000; $167,250 to 37 small businesses; and $48,000 to charter boat and other qualifying passenger boat operators, according to Deputy County Administrator Rich Morrison.
Board Supports Rail to Trail Applications; Comment Period Open Through Nov. 11
The board approved two resolutions of support for Virginia Department of Transportation SMART SCALE applications for portions of a proposed multi-use trail along the railroad right of way.
One resolution is related to a 15-mile segment of the trail between Eastern Shore Community College and Bloxom; the second is for a two-mile segment in the town of Onley.
“SMART SCALE applications were advised during this time for a couple of reasons,” Shannon Alexander of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission told the board.
Consultants at present are doing work on the project at no cost to the localities, “and that is probably not going to be the case in two years from now,” when the next SMART SCALE round will happen, she said.
If the projects are selected and highly ranked for state funding, the earliest start date for preliminary engineering would be August 2025, according to Alexander.
VDOT is wrapping up a feasibility study for the trail project and will present findings to the boards of supervisors of both Accomack and Northampton after the study is completed.
Mason noted Accomack County has applied for other SMART SCALE project funding, including for the board’s top priority, improvements to Route 175.
“There are some scenarios that could happen where this project could be elevated above that, pushing 175 off the list. That would be rare because it would have to be the one right below that got kicked out, but if that happens, this project could be removed and that project elevated up and funded, is my understanding,” Mason said.
Another SMART SCALE application for a trail portion in Cape Charles also was submitted.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board will make a determination in July as to whether any of the applications are accepted for funding through SMART SCALE, according to a presentation on the VDOT website.
Comments from the public about the trail are being accepted through Nov. 11 at the VDOT website, after a virtual public information presentation was posted at Virginiadot.org/EasternShoreTrail. The presentation gives a summary of public input from an online survey, along with the final alignment concept and related feasibility study information.
The study area extends along the railroad right-of-way for about 50 miles between Cape Charles and Hallwood.
The study will evaluate existing conditions, identify the preferred alignment, develop construction and maintenance cost estimates, and provide options for a management structure.
Bayside added to Housing List
The board voted 9-0 to add the Bayside community to a prioritized list for future housing improvement projects funded by the state’s Community Development Block Grant program. Bayside was added at the number six spot on a list of seven, in order: East Horntown, Wishart’s Point, Graysville (Church Road), Whitesville, Linhaven Circle, Bayside, and Sanford.
Bayside was added to the list after the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission recently completed a windshield housing survey and assessment there.
Election Day Holiday
The board voted to add Election Day, Nov. 3, as a paid holiday for county employees, in accordance with the commonwealth of Virginia declaring it a holiday.
Adding the holiday will cost around $20, 210 for holiday pay for employees who have to work that day, including in the departments of public works and public safety, the sheriff’s office, and the voter registrar’s office.
Utility Relief
Accomack County is partnering with the department of social services to offer utility bill assistance.
The board of supervisors voted 9-0 to authorize use of up to $100,000 in federal CARES Act money to help eligible residents with a household income up to $84,000 who can document they are behind at least one month on a utility bill due to COVID-19.
The maximum payment will be $300 per household and assistance will be provided through DSS on a first-come, first-served basis.
Board Opposes Closing Wachapreague Coast Guard Station
The board voted 9-0 to support a letter to legislators written by the Eastern Shore Navigable Waterways Committee and to send a separate letter from the county opposing a reported plan to close the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Wachapreague.
Supervisor Billy Joe Tarr made the motion.
“The economic impact it would have on this county, especially the town of Wachapreague, and of course the search and rescue of the Coast Guard…is phenomenal,” Tarr said, adding, “…It’s a very valuable resource when you’ve got 90 miles from Chincoteague to Cape Charles. …You need something in the middle.”
Courthouse Fee Likely to Double
The board voted to hold a public hearing about increasing the courthouse security fee from $10 to $20, in accordance with a change in the maximum allowed under state law.
The fee is assessed to criminal or traffic cases in the district or circuit court in which the defendant is convicted of a violation.
The current fee is insufficient to cover current costs, according to the agenda item.
Board Approves CARES Act Funds for 911 Projects
The board approve using Cares Act funds to pay Accomack’s share of costs associated with development of a disaster/continuity of operations plan for the 9-1-1 Center, $16,041, and payroll expenditures related to the pandemic, $15,827. Accomack’s support is contingent on Northampton County appropriating its share of the costs.