Cape Charles Survey Points to Friction in Changing Local Economy

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An occupied slip at Cape Charles Harbor is seen with the concrete plant in the background. Photo by Jim Ritch.

By Stefanie Jackson – Cape Charles is more than a tourist attraction known for its public beach, shops, restaurants, and small-town charm. It was built around the railroad and still accommodates industry, such as its concrete plant, and has a working harbor.

The Cape Charles Town Council “believes that tourism and a small-town character can successfully coexist with a working harbor and manufacturing/light industrial activity as long as these activities are thoughtfully located and regulated to minimize conflicts,” according to the Town of Cape Charles Community Survey 2021.

Cape Charles citizens were asked if they agreed with the town’s plan to update its zoning to keep tourism and commercial activity generally on the north side of the harbor and manufacturing and light industrial activity on the south side of the harbor.

A majority, about 85% of the 441 anonymous respondents, said “yes,” and only about 15% said “no.”

However, the comments appeared to indicate that the existing industry on the north side of the harbor – specifically, a clamming business – is unwelcome.

“I’m fine with the concrete factory, I applaud it in fact. I am NOT ok with the commercial activity in the field across from the Northampton Hotel. For God’s sake, who allowed that???” one person wrote. 

The writer took issue with the noise and exhaust from the trucks operating there and added, “That is prime waterfront property, ideal for anything but a truck parking lot!!!”

Another wrote, “I have been in Cape Charles since 1984 and there was a working harbor on the north side and it was fine, but multiple 18 wheelers idling all night, stench from the clams, noise from people clanging metal crates and people hollering at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning is unacceptable and not good for tourism.”

Some comments suggested constraining noise by limiting business hours of operation or implementing a noise ordinance.

One person wrote in support of the clamming business, “this is part of our culture on the shore and should be out there for others to observe and be educated in this area.” The writer noted that tourists have been observed taking interest in how the clamming business operates.

Many of the respondents who supported industrial activity on the south side of the harbor did so with conditions.

Industry “should also be closely monitored to make sure there are no ordinances broken or negative environmental impacts resulting from irresponsible operations. … I am still waiting to find out how the town is going to handle the unauthorized clear cutting done by (Coastal Precast) last summer,” one person wrote.

Another added that the concrete plant should not be allowed to expand. “The noise pollution alone is a degradation to the charm of (Cape Charles). … We also must preserve our green areas and walkways near the industrial area and near the (Bay Creek) neighborhoods,” the writer stated.

One of the survey respondents who voted “no” for new zoning wrote, “Updating zoning? The damage has been done.”

Another wrote, “If you are truly a tourist beach town, no … manufacturing/light industrial activity should be visible from the tourist sector of town.”

One person wrote that Cape Charles’ official definition of “light industry” should have never included a concrete plant, and the clamming business should be on the south side of the harbor.

The writer continued, “Although this town was founded on the transportation industry over one hundred years ago, it is now experiencing a Renaissance due to the tourism industry. The Council needs to appreciate this trend/opportunity. A study of the history of similar towns will show that this is not uncommon to experience a change of focus. Chincoteague, for example, has historically had a poultry industry, a menhaden processing industry, a fishing industry, however it now relies predominantly on tourism…and it is a THRIVING municipal economy.”

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