Hundreds of Northumberland County, Va., citizens are making one thing perfectly clear: they don’t want the county to make a special exception and allow a massive new development in one of Northumberland’s most environmentally sensitive areas.
Some 620 county residents – about 5 percent of the county’s population -- have signed petitions opposing a “special exception permit” that would let Charlottesville developer Tom Dingledine build his Bluff Point project.
Not only is the number of petition signatures significant, but half of them come from residents living in parts of the county not immediately adjacent to the project area, according to Citizens to Protect Bluff Point, a group opposed to the development plan. In other words, it’s not just a NIMBY thing; folks across Northumberland don’t want the county to okay the project.
Northumberland County, located on Virginia’s historic Northern Neck between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, is a rural community whose past and future are closely tied to farming and fishing. Recognizing that its cultural and economic heritage depends upon clean water and the protection of natural resources, the county’s comprehensive plan notes that future development in Northumberland must be done in an “environmentally sensitive, planned manner that preserves sensitive features such as floodplains, wetlands, dunes, beaches and natural topography.”
But it is on sensitive areas that Dingledine has proposed building 530 single and multi-family homes, a 90-room resort hotel and spa, 34,000 square feet of commercial shops, restaurants, artificial lakes, a new marina with 98 slips, and dry storage for 130 boats.
The proposed development – it would be the largest in Northumberland’s history -- has created quite a stir in the county. Scores of concerned residents have attended briefings, written letters, and spoken at hearings to urge the county not to violate its own long-term growth plan. They’ve told local officials they’re worried about runoff and other pollution contaminating local creeks and the Bay, further jeopardizing restoration of oysters and the oyster economy.
They maintain that the shallow nearby waters and wetlands simply will not support a proposed marina and will require significant and long-term dredging. They’re worried that increased drinking water needs will further stress local groundwater supplies. They argue that if Dingledine wants to build, he should do so in areas the county has properly and publicly earmarked for growth and development, not in a conservation district.
But their concerns haven’t been enough. The county board of supervisors delayed a final vote last fall and opted to hire a consultant (paid for mostly by Dingledine) to study the proposal and make a recommendation to the county. That’s due later this month. Meantime, Supervisor James Long asked for a “sense of the community” survey to gage wider public opinion. That’s what prompted the petition effort.
According to a recent press release from Citizens to Protect Bluff Point, “The result is an overwhelming response from all parts of the county urging the board of supervisors to deny the special exception request but allow the developer to proceed using the guidance in existing county zoning ordinances and the comprehensive plan.
“While the survey’s original target were those residents and landowners directly adjacent to or otherwise directly impacted by the proposed development, the countywide response was astonishing. Once word spread that a survey was being conducted, the initiative gained a life of its own. People from all over the county called or contacted the group requesting copies of the petition and organized their own local sign-up campaigns.”
The citizens presented the 620 signatures to the supervisors in June but continued to circulate petitions through this week. They’re also planning to make the Bluff Point development project an issue in fall’s board of supervisor elections.
“Please do your part to ensure the county administrator and the supervisors do not underestimate community opposition to this ill-advised project,” the group’s press release urges.
Questions: How much weight should Northumberland officials give citizen petitions? How much should the consultant’s recommendation count? Can a consultant funded largely by the developer really provide an unbiased report? Would a countywide referendum be the best way to decide this issue?
If you were on the county board, what would you do?
Chesapeake Bay Foundation