By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County has restarted the process of updating its comprehensive plan with greater emphasis on citizen input – Sept. 9 kickoff meetings were open to the public at five locations, one in each voting district – but one citizen felt shut out when he wasn’t also invited to what he dubbed a “secret stakeholder group” meeting the next morning.
He called the events of Sept. 9 a “watch the shiny nickel” attempt to distract citizens from “secrecy, the scheming, and apparent hidden agendas” possibly behind the Sept. 10 meeting.
The accusation was made in a Sept. 12 letter addressed to the Northampton County Board of Supervisors by Ken Dufty, a Wardtown resident who operates a small business in Exmore.
Northampton Deputy County Administrator Janice Williams said the Sept. 10 meeting was an informal gathering of representatives of the Berkley Group – the consulting firm hired to facilitate the update of the comprehensive plan – and individuals and leaders of businesses and organizations invested in the county’s continued growth and development.
Advertising the meeting was not required and no minutes were taken, she added.
Attendees representing Northampton schools included Superintendent Eddie Lawrence, Assistant Superintendent Christine Hill, Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas, two school board members, five teachers, and four students.
Other attendees included Commissioner of the Revenue Charlene Gray, Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Dodson, two real estate agents, a farmer, an environmental activist, and a pastor.
Berkley Group Chief Operating Officer Drew Williams said the firm is not compiling its own list of Northampton stakeholders, nor will the firm hold separate meetings on the comprehensive plan for stakeholders.
All members of the Northampton community are allowed to participate in all of the Berkley Group’s public meetings on the comprehensive plan.
Spencer Murray, chairman of the board of supervisors, echoed the Berkley Group’s statements in a Sept. 18 letter sent to his fellow supervisors and the members of the county planning commission.
Murray and Dixon Leatherbury, chairman of the planning commission, “are in total agreement that every citizen of Northampton is a ‘stakeholder’ in the development of the plan for the future of Northampton. We also agree there is no ‘stakeholder group.’
“The label ‘stakeholder’ has taken an exclusive and toxic quality when our objective is and always has been to be fully inclusive.”
“Effectively immediately, the Berkley Group will coordinate directly with the planning commission and its support staff to identify, schedule, and conduct any direct communication with individuals, groups, and communities,” Murray added.
After reading Murray’s letter, Dufty stated that he is “confident that we are back on track.”
The Berkley Group will provide a community survey for citizens to take, likely in early October. The survey will be available for 46 weeks in digital format on the county’s official website and in print.
Its next public meeting will be in November, before Thanksgiving, at one location in Northampton, Williams said.
A draft of the comprehensive plan will be published in spring 2020, followed by another public input session.
The plan should be completed by late fall or early winter 2020, Williams said.
Northampton County’s comprehensive plan is a decade old, even though Virginia law states comprehensive plans should be reviewed every five years and amended if advisable.
After Northampton supervisors rejected the county planning commission’s latest draft of the updated plan in December 2018, they decided to hire the Berkley Group to clean up the “mess,” as one supervisor called it.
Northampton citizens seem to approve of the Berkley Group’s work so far.
Dufty stated in his Sept. 12 letter that the group’s members “obviously are professional and true to their mission to fully involve the public.”
Berkley Group Chief Executive Officer Darren Coffey assured citizens that Northampton’s updated comprehensive plan will be “the people’s plan.”