By Stefanie Jackson — The Cape Charles Town Council and Planning Commission held a joint public hearing July 13 on a controversial proposal by Coastal Precast Systems to make amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance, potentially allowing the concrete plant to expand its business, which members of the public say is already dirty, noisy, and otherwise disruptive to the enjoyment of the town by residents and visitors.
The planning commission also had received a request to rezone 1201 Bayshore Road – an approximately 11-acre parcel known as tax map number 90-8-1A1 – from harbor to general business/light industrial.
The request was made by the Eyre Baldwin-owned company South Port Investors LLC, which is selling the parcel to Coastal Precast Systems contingent upon the zoning change.
In addition to the rezoning request, the Planning Commission was set to take action Tuesday night on three items relating to the general business/industrial zone, proposed by Coastal Precast:
- Allowing assembly and storage of products as a by-right use.
- Allowing buildings up to 75 feet tall with a setback of 125 feet through a conditional use permit.
- Other minor zoning text changes; for example, removing “sirens” from the list of noisemaking devices prohibited in the general business/light industrial district, which includes loudspeakers, intercoms, paging systems, whistles, horns, and bells.
During the public hearing, several concerned citizens who spoke against the proposed zoning changes alluded to Coastal Precast’s recent clear-cutting of a part of its property bordering the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve, leaving concrete plant activities in full view of preserve visitors.
Phil Goetkin said, “I think we can all agree that economic development is a good thing – more jobs and an increased tax base. At the same time, we need to be aware of the potential environmental costs the development of these properties might create, potentially up to 86 acres.”
He called for strict enforcement of the tree conservation and preservation measures in Cape Charles’ zoning ordinance, which requires a business, commercial, or industrial-zoned property to be at least 10% covered by a tree canopy. A permit is required to remove any tree, Goetkin added.
Shannon Alexander, of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), noted that the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve is one of nine such preserves on the Eastern Shore and is home to rare oaks that provide habitats for migratory birds.
Joan Natali also was concerned about preserving Cape Charles’ trees and reducing noise coming from the concrete plant. She also said the proposed 75-foot building height limit was “too high.”`
Sue Tillotson pointed out that tourism is what put Cape Charles on the map and cited a recent article in Southern Living magazine, which called Cape Charles ”The Best Little Beach Town in Virginia.”
The zoning issues at hand prompted her to ask, “Who are we and who are we going to be?”
Some speakers did not oppose the concrete plant but felt that the planning commission was being pushed to make too many big decisions too fast.
Bruce Evans said, “Don’t rush this thing and kill this town.”
Bill Payne appeared to be the only speaker who supported the concrete plant’s proposal. He asked Cape Charles not to be “selfish” because Northampton County and the Eastern Shore need more jobs.
After the public hearing closed, representatives of South Port Investors and Coastal Precast were permitted to speak.
Participating were Eyre Baldwin, chief executive officer of South Port Investors, Dan Brown, chief financial officer of South Port Investors, and Brandon Mallory, of Coastal Precast.
Baldwin was quick to attempt to dispel the “misinformation” about the zoning proposals, including the proposed rezoning of parcel 90-8-1A1 from harbor to general business/light industrial.
He said that when the Baldwin family purchased the land that became the (now defunct) Cape Charles Sustainable Technology and Industrial Park in the 1990s – part of a green technology project of the Clinton administration – the entire area had industrial zoning.
Some of the parcels were rezoned as part of the harbor district “the minute we bought it,” Baldwin said.
He pointed out that DCR purchased about 20 acres of parcel 90-8-1A1 in September 2020 (the portion purchased was assigned parcel number 90-13-A).
DCR showed interest in purchasing the rest of parcel 90-8-1A1 “within days” of the initial sale, but “we never heard from them,” Baldwin said.
In light of of DCR’s inaction, he dubbed Alexander’s concern over the fate of the parcel a “tragedy.”
Regarding the speed of the rezoning process, Baldwin said it was not being “rushed” and that he has been advocating for the rezoning of parcel 90-8-A1A since 2008.
Responding to concerns about allowing 75-foot-tall buildings in the light industrial zoning district, Baldwin said it would be “impossible” to put a building that high on parcel 90-8-1A1 because that property would not meet the setback requirements.
A 75-foot-tall building could be placed on the adjacent property, parcel 90-A-1A, which is already zoned light industrial (but is not owned by Coastal Precast). With setbacks, the building would be in the middle of the property and would not be visible from town, Baldwin suggested.
If the zoning changes were passed, the 75-foot-tall building could not be built without a conditional use permit, to which the planning commission or Town Council could add special conditions that must be met for the permit to be granted.
The conditional use permit application process would require a development plan for the entire parcel and address every aspect of the project, including environmental concerns, wetlands, buffers, stormwater, landscaping, lighting, parking, the number of employees, and emergency service access, said Katie Nunez, Cape Charles’ interim zoning administrator.
Mallory said the main reason for the proposed zoning changes would be to permit lay-down storage on parcel 90-8-A1A.
He indicated that the only scenario in which the concrete plant would need a 75-foot-tall building is if Coastal Precast got into the business of building wind turbines.
Baldwin clarified that Coastal Precast had no intention of using parcel 90-8-A1A to assemble products, nor would it be a practical use of the parcel. Mallory said the parcel would be used for delivering products to barges in the harbor.
If Coastal Precast did get a contract for building wind turbines, all the proper mitigation steps would be taken. “We’ve done it multiple times,” Mallory said. Coastal Precast has two additional locations, one in Virginia and another in North Carolina.
As for noise issues, Mallory said the noise level of the sirens used at the concrete plant are already as low as permitted by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). However, the sirens on rented equipment are louder, he noted.
Commissioner Diane D’Amico was hesitant to support the zoning changes, mentioning the clear-cutting next to the nature preserve.
“You can see why people are a little bit upset,” she told Mallory. “They’re thinking, the minute you get this land, you’re going to do whatever you want to do.”
All the planning commissioners present, with the exception of D’Amico, voted to recommend approval of each of the four requests presented to them: rezoning the parcel, allowing product assembly and storage by right, allowing 75-foot-tall buildings by conditional use permit, and the additional minor zoning text amendments.
The Town Council is expected to act on the planning commission’s recommendations at its next meeting, Thursday, July 22.