Chincoteague Council Contemplates Uses for Latest Round of Federal COVID-19 Relief Funding

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By Carol Vaughn —

Resident and former council candidate Patricia Farley spoke during the public comment period at the Chincoteague town council meeting Monday about potential uses for federal funds coming to Chincoteague as result of the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress approved in March.
“I have been so impressed with the way, not just this year but especially this year, council and Mr. Tolbert have handled the budget of this town, particularly in an amazingly difficult year. To juggle things around, to prioritize — I think it has been a tribute to all of you to make it all work and to end up pretty much balanced,” Farley said, adding, “That being said, this big chunk of money that’s coming to us…The uses are pretty loose within the categories that are within the law.”
Allowed uses appear to include helping “households, businesses, nonprofits — any entity in the town that has suffered because of COVID,” she said, adding in her opinion that includes all the town’s nonprofit organizations — including Chincoteague Island Community Cats, Manna Cafe, Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, Chincoteague Cultural Alliance, Chincoteague Island Arts Organization, the Museum of Chincoteague Island, the library and the chamber of commerce.
“None of these groups has been able to raise money — in some cases, no money — during the shutdown,” Farley said.
“These groups and the chamber are why we have the revenue that we have, bringing all the people in,” she said, referring to Chincoteague’s largely tourism-based economy.
“I hope you will listen to the people in the town who have invested in these groups, who have invested in this town — who care about this town and often feel that nobody is listening to them,” Farley said.
Under the legislation’s provisions, half the funds will be distributed to localities soon and the rest within a year.
Farley said she and many people who responded to a post on her Facebook page favor using some of the federal money to study providing central sewage service on the island.
She urged the council to solicit ideas from residents about how to use the funds.
Town Manager Mike Tolbert later in the meeting said there has been little guidance from the federal government yet about the money’s use.
“ARPA was passed in the middle of March and the Secretary of the Treasury has 60 days in order to produce regulations regarding use of these funds. The best guidance I’ve had is, don’t expect anything before that 60 days is up,” he said.
Broad guidelines released so far indicate the money can be used for infrastructure projects such as broadband or sewer; to help nonprofits; to help essential workers; and to replace revenue localities lost due to the pandemic, among other potential uses.
The amount the town will receive is not yet clear — Tolbert has heard figures ranging from $2.06 million to $2.3 million to $500,000 or $600,000.
The town will have to submit a certification of need to receive the funds through the state, he said.
The money must be spent by the end of 2024.
Accomack County Supervisor Billy Joe Tarr Update
Accomack County Supervisor Billy Joe Tarr, who represents Chincoteague on the board of supervisors, said the county included in its 2022 budget another $50,000 towards the local match required for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a $3 million study about the Chincoteague Inlet.
The amount brings to the total set aside by the county for the study to $200,000, he said.
“I hope it gets done,” Tarr said, noting the study has been discussed for several years and funds also have been sought from the state. Chincoteague also agreed to contribute to the local match — half the study’s cost — which must be provided before the study is undertaken.
The inlet at the south end of the island has changed dramatically over time, growing deeper and wider and resulting in erosion of wetlands that formerly protected that area of Chincoteague.
The town approached the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for help in 2016 and was told $3 million was needed for a study of the inlet, with $1.5 million of that being in the form of a local match.
Additionally, Accomack County included $25,000 in the 2022 budget for the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, Tarr said.
Tarr said the board of supervisors recently approved an ordinance, effective July 1, that requires boaters to pay a fee in order to use most county boat ramps.
The fees are $7 per day or $40 per year.
Boat owners who pay personal property taxes to the county on their boats will receive a free tag to display on their vehicle when parking at a county facility. People who pay real estate taxes but not personal property taxes on their boat to the county may contact the county treasurer’s office to receive a free tag.
Queen Sound and one other facility are exempt from the fee because of an agreement with the state highway department.
Tarr also said information about American Rescue Plan funds coming to the county and to Chincoteague and other towns is still in flux.
“Every day you open it up, it’s something new. … Chincoteague’s figure has changed a couple of times,” he said, adding of allowed uses, “…We only have general guidance on it.”
The town’s allocation will come from the state, not from the county as it did under the federal CARES Act, Tarr said.
The county plans to hold a town hall-style meeting to receive public input on how to use the $6.2 million Accomack County is slated to receive, according to Tarr.
Town Manager Update
Town Manager Mike Tolbert updated council on the filtration plant for Chincoteague’s water supply.
The plant, built by NASA Wallops Flight Facility to remove chemicals called PFAS from the town’s shallow wells, was completed and has been approved by the Virginia Department of Health, but Wallops notified the town last week that the plant’s use will be delayed due to an upcoming change to Wallops’ operations contractors.
No date was given for the start of operations at the plant.
Tolbert said work on Brianna’s Kindness Park is progressing. A contractor will begin site work next week and playground equipment is slated to arrive as early as the first week in May. The park should be completed in October.
Tolbert has begun the application process to have the former Chincoteague firehouse placed on the Virginia Landmarks Registry and the National Register of Historic Places, a process that could take two years or more to complete.
Chincoteague’s building and zoning department issued 82 building permits in March, a significant increase over the three-year average of 43 permits for March, Tolbert said.
“As building goes, so does the economy,” he said, adding, “…The really good thing about that is several of them are commercial permits — people don’t invest in their business if they don’t expect an increase in business activity, so that says to me, I’m looking for a good summer.”
Police Raise Funds for Brianna Kindness Park, Host Senior Luncheon
The Chincoteague Police Department raised $1,833 for the Brianna Kindness Park from a flag football tournament held Easter weekend, with additional money coming from hat sales.
The department also sponsored its annual senior luncheon on March 24, with 250 meals served via a drive-through, pick-up system or delivered to homebound seniors.
Former Firehouse Discussion
Councilman Gene Wayne Taylor spoke about the idea of renting out parts of the former firehouse while the town’s process of applying for historic landmark status proceeds. That process could take two years or more.
The council in October 2019 voted to buy the circa 1930 firehouse on Main Street for $600,000, with a plan to seek grants to restore it and possibly renovate the second floor for apartments.
The volunteer fire company moved into a new fire station earlier in 2019.
“I don’t think any of us want to turn the ownership of that building over…before then. … I hate to see the building sit vacant,” Taylor said.
Income from renting parts of the firehouse could help offset costs to maintain the building and perhaps serve as a test market for the proposed uses after it is renovated.
“It would be a good test market for what we’re talking about,” Taylor said, adding, “…I’d like to see it rented this year.”
Consultants with Hill Studio and an Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission employee last fall presented the council with options for repurposing the building for retail space on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.
The overall goal is to provide a use for the historic fire station and to allow people to go inside and experience its history, according to Grayson Williams of ANPDC.
“We want to make sure it’s a long-term asset,” he said at the Sept. 17, 2020, presentation.
A survey conducted last year, with 433 respondents, showed 40% of respondents would like to see a restaurant in the building’s first floor; 25% favored mixed use of the space; 22% favored rentable space for events; 22% wanted a visitor center and gallery; and 12% favored storefronts.
Survey takers favored either housing that would be affordable for teachers and others in the workforce and/or office space on the second floor.
Thirty-two percent wanted to see the second floor used for apartments; 24% favored office space; 10% said secondary housing should be the use; 8% favored putting a hotel there; and 2% said it should be used for retail space.
A three-bay area, a two-bay area, and office space in the building could be rented in the meantime, while work continues to obtain historic landmark status and to plan for the renovations, according to Monday’s council discussion.
The consensus was council did not need to take a vote on the matter.
Cat TNR Event Scheduled
Julie Brommer, president of Chincoteague Island Community Cats, said during the public comment period the group is planning another Trap-Neuter-Release clinic this month, with feral cats being trapped from April 29 through May 1, after which they will be taken to a Pocomoke veterinarian to be neutered or spayed and vaccinated. The cats will be returned and released to their outdoor homes on the island on Sunday, May 2.
She asked residents to keep their pet cats indoors during trapping days to avoid them being accidentally trapped.
The group’s goal is to trap 50 cats, mainly in the central part of the island, during the event.
For more information, go to the website, https://www.cicommunitycats.org/, or email cicommunitycats@gmail.com