By Stefanie Jackson – At the direction of Canonie Atlantic, the company that owns the Eastern Shore’s 49-mile railroad, the removal of unused track has begun, marking the beginning of the region’s rails-to-trails project, but it does not have the full support of the public, Northampton County supervisors learned at their Nov. 9 meeting.
“Northampton County Farm Bureau supports opportunities for increased economic development, which includes tourism, but not at the detriment of existing businesses and residents of the county,” said Kyle Sturgis, the organization’s president.
He opposes the rails-to-trails project as proposed because it would disrupt farming activities and create additional liabilities for farmers.
A paved bicycle trail is planned for construction on the railroad right of way that will remain in place after the tracks are removed. However, there are several ways in which trail users could negatively impact the farmlands on which the right of way is located:
- Pesticide application would be disrupted.
- Bikers and hikers could venture off the trail and cause harm to themselves or farm property.
- Children could play on or around nearby farm equipment.
- Vegetable crops could be damaged or stolen.
- Irrigation ponds, which pose safety hazards, would be more accessible.
- Hunters and four-wheelers could more easily access private property.
Sturgis also was concerned about the potential liability of using farm equipment near the trail and possibly damaging the trail.
To keep out trespassers, fences and vegetative buffers could be installed, but those are expensive solutions, he said.
The Farm Bureau will continue to oppose the rails to trails project until county officials work with the organization on a plan addressing its concerns, Sturgis said.
Supervisor John Coker recommended also presenting those concerns to Accomack supervisors and the Accomack-Northampton Transportation District Commission.
Neither is Exmore business owner Ken Dufty “a big fan” of rails to trails.
He bought property on the railroad after ANTDC board member Spencer Murray assured him the tracks would never be removed. Now Murray supports removing the tracks and selling the steel at the cost of its removal, Dufty contended.
He supports leaving the tracks in place for tourism-related rail service or another use.
State Legislative Priorities
County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski has met with Northampton’s representatives in the Virginia General Assembly, Del. Robert Bloxom and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, to review the county’s legislative priorities for 2022.
Northampton and Accomack counties are seeking permanent state funding from the Cost of Competing Adjustment (COCA) program, which would allow both counties to offer higher salaries to teachers and compete in the labor market with nearby school districts in Maryland and Hampton Roads. This year, the two counties were granted a one-time COCA award of $2 million, of which Northampton’s share was $362,000.
Northampton will continue to seek state funding for harbor and boat ramp maintenance and dredging. State funding for these types of projects often is provided in the form of Virginia Port Authority grants.
The county also is seeking assistance for the cost of upgrading sewer infrastructure. Kolakowski noted that Cape Charles and Exmore’s sewer systems are in “severe need for rehabilitation.”
Affordable housing for low-income families and workforce housing (affordable housing for middle-income workers and their families) are in high demand, the county administrator said.
Virginia Department of Transportation funding is needed to make improvements to roads, sidewalks, and storm sewers.
Additional funding for broadband internet is also needed, including funding to coordinate efforts of internet service providers to avoid duplication of services, Kolakowski said.
High School Curriculum
Supervisor Oliver Bennett, who is also a teacher at Northampton High School, submitted a letter from some of his fellow teachers, which was read into the public record.
The high school teachers are using a new curriculum this year, which was purchased from Hampton City Schools for $20,000. Northampton County Public Schools also spent $250,000 on supplemental materials and subscriptions, the letter stated.
These expenditures are “mind boggling,” considering the new curriculum is not compatible with many of the high school’s course offerings. Teachers must create pacing guides for the new curriculum, and those guides may not be useful next year if the current block schedule system is discontinued, the letter said.
Northampton teachers do not receive additional compensation for writing the pacing guides, and “to add insult to injury,” the Hampton City teachers who wrote the curriculum receive a “dividend” or bonus every time the curriculum is purchased by an outside source.
Eastville Inn Lease
Stuart Oliver spoke during the citizens information period on behalf of his wife, Louise Oliver, who runs the Kitchen Sync catering business out of the historic Eastville Inn owned by Northampton County and leased by the Olivers.
Kitchen Sync has operated in the Eastville Inn for about six years, and the Olivers deem the catering business an “appropriate use” of the inn, considering several restaurants that have operated in the inn did not prove successful in the long term.
Stuart Oliver believed Northampton officials would prefer a long-term lease or sale of the Eastville Inn to another restaurant owner, even though “many have tried and all have failed,” he said.
Oliver does not expect anyone will make the county an acceptable offer for the Eastville Inn because its acquisition and renovation would be unaffordable to a “non-subsidized entity,” he said.
The Olivers would like to enter a new lease agreement with the county for the Eastville Inn. They have paid the rent on the inn on time and in full every month, even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Stuart Oliver noted.
It would be better to keep a reliable tenant than “gamble on a new venture,” he said.
The previous lease agreement stated that the Eastville Inn must offer lunch service several days every week; Louise Oliver had settled on every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with an opening date of July 6.
But at the eleventh hour, in late June, county supervisors decided the lease would be in September and the Olivers would be allowed to rent the inn on a month-to-month basis thereafter.
Stuart Oliver said if he and his wife hadn’t been hit with the termination notice, lunch service would be available at the Eastville Inn now.
He told supervisors that he and his wife will submit a new lease offer soon, which will include a rent increase and lunch service to become available within one month of the start of the lease term.
Dufty encouraged Northampton officials to continue working to make broadband (high-speed internet) available throughout the county.
He has had many conversations in his shop with younger couples – people in their 30s and 40s – who enjoy visiting the Eastern Shore and appreciate the lighter traffic and reduced crime.
Many of the people Dufty has talked to work from home and need broadband, which is the “big obstacle” when they start house hunting on the Shore.
Northampton County, without universal broadband coverage, is “missing a great opportunity,” he said.
John Perkins, of Machipongo, said that broadband is unaffordable to residents who live far from a public road. He received two quotes to install broadband service at his home; Spectrum would charge $2,000 and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority would charge $5,000.
He told supervisors, “So if we get internet on the Shore, what you need to do is get it to the houses that are looking to get it.”