By Stefanie Jackson – The Cape Charles Town Council held a town hall meeting Aug. 10 for concerned citizens to get answers about the local concrete plant’s proposed zoning changes that would allow its business to grow.
“Many people have many concerns on many levels – mine happens to be integrity in process and truth in government,” said Susan Eidam, one of several members of the public who spoke Tuesday night.
Coastal Precast Systems is under contract with South Port Investors, an Eyre Baldwin-owned company, to purchase a parcel adjacent to the existing concrete plant property. The parcel is currently zoned as harbor district.
The sale of the property is contingent upon rezoning the parcel to general business/light industrial. Also requested were zoning text amendments that would allow Coastal Precast to use the property for laydown storage.
Citizens became concerned in part because the parcel, tax map number 90-8-1A1, contains wetlands that could be impacted by construction on the property.
Many previously said they had lost trust in the town government when Coastal Precast clear-cut part of its property in full view of the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve and no town officials sought disciplinary action against the concrete plant.
Brandon Mowrey, Coastal Precast’s director of business development and marketing, said at the town hall meeting that the concrete plant plans to use parcel 90-8-1A1 for laydown storage, but less than 1/10 acre of wetlands would be impacted, so a mitigation plan would not be required. A building 200 feet wide and 800 feet long may be constructed.
Town Manager John Hozey added that the concrete plant will save five to six more acres of trees than required by local ordinance.
Phil Goetkin spoke in support of preserving the trees, noting that one mature tree can have a crown up to 50 feet wide.
Coastal Precast also plans to install a wall about 10 feet high and 160 feet long along the property line between the concrete plant and nature preserve, using sound-reducing panels such as those seen along Interstate 64, Mowrey said.
The wall will serve three purposes: blocking noise, obscuring the view of concrete plant activities from the nature preserve, and allowing vines to climb up the wall to restore some of the greenery that was destroyed in the clear-cutting.
The wall will be complete sometime between October this year and March next year, Mowrey indicated.
Hozey said more research is needed to determine whether or not the clear-cutting was done illegally, but Coastal Precast did not intentionally do anything wrong.
He noted that the concrete plant property existed prior to the adoption of the current zoning ordinance.
Paul Ogorchock, owner of Coastal Precast, addressed several concerns, including one citizen’s statement that no sales taxes are charged on government contracts.
Ogorchock confirmed the statement but noted that Coastal Precast has only one client that does not pay sales taxes – the U.S. Navy. All of the concrete plant’s other customers pay sales taxes.
In June and July 2019, Northampton County received $235,000 in sales tax revenue from Cape Charles. In that same period in 2021, the county received $365,000, a 55% increase, Hozey said.
Northampton receives a greater portion of Coastal Precast’s sales tax revenue than Cape Charles, which many deem unfair, but the town is working to correct the issue, Hozey said.
He disagreed with citizens who said the sales tax revenue received by Northampton County doesn’t benefit Cape Charles residents.
“We are all citizens of the county. We are all receiving services from the county,” including education, police and emergency services, social services, and parks and recreation, Hozey said.
Ogorchock also described some of the steps Coastal Precast is taking to be a good neighbor to Cape Charles residents. He said the concrete plant recently spent $60,000 on dust-reduction measures.
He asserted that Coastal Precast makes more effort than Bayshore Concrete did to reduce noise and dust coming from the plant. Coastal Precast does as much work as possible indoors, but Bayshore Concrete’s operations were entirely outdoors, Ogorchock said.
Many Cape Charles citizens have raised concerns that concrete plant operations negatively impact the local tourism industry, and the expansion of industrial activity in town will worsen that impact.
Hozey shared data that he believed demonstrated tourism has not been negatively affected by the concrete plant’s operations but has grown in spite of them.
In May and June 2019, during the period after Bayshore Concrete closed but before it reopened as Coastal Precast, Cape Charles received $106,000 in meals and transient occupancy taxes.
In May and June 2021, after Coastal Precast had been operating for more than a year, the town received $163,000 in meals and transient occupancy taxes, a 54% increase.
Comparing August and September 2019 to the same period in 2020, revenue from harbor dockings increased from about $59,000 to $91,000, another 54% increase.
Additionally, Cape Charles property values increased between 2019 and 2021.
“So to say that the plant has had a negative economic impact on tourism is simply wrong,” Hozey said.
“The point that I’m trying to make is that we don’t have to choose between our two primary economic sectors. We can have them both … and we need them both,” he said.
He cautioned Cape Charles not to “put all our eggs in one basket” and said the town’s economy must be diversified if it expects to survive.
Tourism is “booming” now but eventually will level out, and the town will need another industry to fall back on, he said.
Cape Charles’ comprehensive plan has supported both tourism and heavy industry “for decades” and has always indicated that industrial activities should be confined to the south side of the harbor, Hozey said.
The concrete plant also provides jobs for local residents. Coastal Precast’s facility in Cape Charles currently has 169 employees, 85% of whom live in Northampton County, Mowrey said.
Coastal Precast is Northampton’s 12th largest employer. Fast food restaurants and retail and grocery store chains may supply more jobs, but they rarely provide full-time hours and benefits, which are offered to every Coastal Precast employee, Mowrey added.
He did not have information on employee salaries and wages but noted that the concrete plant’s weekly payroll is $134,000.
Laura Weigand was concerned that no environmental or other studies had been conducted on the parcel. Mayor Smitty Dize explained that those studies would not be triggered until the permitting process began for developing the land.
Town officials also dispelled rumors that the concrete plant was doubling in size or its production capabilities were being expanded. Coastal Precast’s interest in parcel 90-8-1A1 is for storage capacity only, they said.
David Parham questioned why Coastal Precast is asking for zoning text amendments to permit both outdoor manufacturing and storage of products in the light industrial zoning district if the concrete plant means only to expand its storage capacity.
Ogorchock declined to withdraw his request to allow outdoor manufacturing in a light industrial zoning district.
Some citizens seemed to appreciate the effort to answer questions, but others were not convinced that all parties were being transparent. For example, Susan Eidam, felt the town had been “gaslighting” its citizens.
Hozey recommended the Town Council approve Coastal Precast’s proposal because “it met all the requirements and was in the town’s best interests.”
He told citizens, “I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m asking you to understand me.”
The Town Council’s next regular meeting is Thursday, Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m.