By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton planning commission, at the direction of the board of supervisors, has opened a discussion on affordable housing and promoting it through changes to the county zoning ordinance.
Dixon Leatherbury, chairman of the board of supervisors, had suggested the assignment after reading an article called “Best Counties to Retire to in Virginia” by David Broad, published by Stacker.
Northampton was listed as the 18th best county in Virginia for retirement. The article stated that in Northampton, which has a population of 11,885, 65% of residents own their homes and the median home value is $176,800.
The author graded the “top places to live” in Northampton: a B- for Cape Charles, another B- for Nassawadox, and a C+ for Eastville.
But what particularly struck Leatherbury was how much of a renter’s household income was spent on housing.
About 35% of Northampton residents rent their homes, and the average monthly rent is $733, but the median household income is $47,227.
Of the 25 counties listed in the article, Northampton County was tied with Westmoreland County for having the highest rent as a percentage of income, according to a Nov. 24 letter from County Administrator Charles Kolakowski.
Northampton planning commissioners and staff met Dec. 15 and engaged in a general discussion of affordable housing, noting the board of supervisors is expected to schedule a collaboration with them, such as a joint meeting, in early 2022.
During the discussion, Planner Kelley Lewis Parks called mobile homes a “really good option” and Commissioner Sarah Morgan stated the planning commission should “strongly consider” providing incentives for building more manufactured homes.
Chairman Glen Anders shared a letter from concerned citizen and Exmore business owner Ken Dufty, who had sent the planning commission a copy of Virginia Code 15.2-2305, which authorizes counties, cities, and towns to amend their zoning ordinances to provide affordable housing programs.
“Such program shall address housing needs, promote a full range of housing choices, and encourage the construction and continued existence of moderately priced housing by providing for optional increases in density in order to reduce land costs for such moderately priced housing,” the code states.
Dufty also sent an email to Northampton County Deputy Administrator Janice Williams on Dec. 14, which included a copy of the code as an attachment.
He wrote, “this attachment is provided to reinforce that any density changes considered in the development of an affordable housing incentive program must have as its core consideration the densities established by the prevailing comprehensive plan …”
For example, Northampton’s comprehensive plan promotes development in and around towns, and it sets housing densities in town edges from “5 dwelling units per acre to 2 dwelling units per acre with density decreasing as distance from town center increases.”
But Commissioner Janet Sturgis said Northampton must designate areas with housing densities of about 20 or 25 dwelling units per acre to meet the county’s housing needs.
She clarified, “that’s not a high-rise, that’s a three-story (apartment) building that looks a lot like the Hampton Inn” in Exmore.
Higher housing densities will be required “if we need 450 low-income and working (housing) units,” Sturgis asserted.
A certain number of units on the first floor of the apartment building would be reserved for disabled and elderly residents; other units would be used for low-income and workforce housing.
“That’s how these things usually go,” Sturgis said.
But she was concerned that establishing urban development areas may conflict with the comprehensive plan.
Virginia Code 15.2-2223.1 defines an urban development area as an area designated by a locality for higher density development based in part on its proximity to transportation and public water and sewer service.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jack Thornton assured the planning commissioners that “if there is conflict, the ordinance always trumps everything.”