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Dan Slone: Sustainability

The Green Coast

Northampton County on the Eastern Shore is reinventing itself as an environmentally and economically sustainable community.


The Eastern Shore of Virginia, its economy devastated by the decline of its agricultural and seafood industries, is one of the poorest regions of Virginia. But it is a leader in putting into practice the theories of the sustainability movement. As a laboratory for a radical new way of thinking, the Eastern Shore may have much to teach Virginia, and the nation, about harmonizing the goals of economic development, environmental protection and social stability.


In the counties that make up Virginia’s eastern shore – Accomack and Northampton -- an unusual assortment of sustainability interests co-exist.


The last intact coastal-barrier island ecosystem on the Atlantic coast runs along the seaside of Northampton County. In 1979, the United Nations designated this chain of islands as a World Biosphere Reserve. The islands are habitat for over 260 species of birds. The Nature Conservancy has invested heavily in preserving this international resource, purchasing outright property that it could not get donated. The Conservancy helped protect first the islands themselves, then the marshes on the landside, and, then, when it appeared that the farms adjoining the wetlands might be developed, took a risk and purchased the farms as well. The organization has led the region in the preservation of key resources necessary for sustainability.


The preserve hosts and supports an annual migration of huge flocks of song birds – not to mention scores of hawks that follow along snacking on them – as well as an eco-tourism business based on bird watching. The Annual International Migratory Bird Celebration (May 10-11) draws people into the area’s many bed and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants. Regional artists prosper, including decoy artists and bronze artists extraordinaire, Dr. William Turner and his son David, who supply their wildlife bronzes to the world from their foundry in Exmore.


Meanwhile, the town of Cape Charles is undergoing a rebirth. Stimulated by Bay Creek, a 1,729-acre development that wraps around the historic town with both a Palmer and a Nicklaus golf course, the town is seeing significant investment for the first time in decades. The rich stock of beautiful old buildings is being mined for the new center of a town with a more sustainable economy. As Bay Creek developer Dick Foster redevelops one of the town’s two old harbors, the other springs to life as well.


Ecotourism and the Bay Creek/Cape Charles revitalization help build an economic base for the region. While these developments should be celebrated, they are neither perfectly sustainable nor are they sufficient in and of themselves. Both could be significantly “greened.” And, while both provide jobs, they are not enough to bring prosperity to the entire region.


The Eastern Shore’s geographic isolation has been both a blessing and a curse, putting its economy at a competitive disadvantage but preserving a rural way of life. The region has a love/hate relationship with the onerous toll of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which inhibits commerce with the nearby metropolis of Hampton Roads but also slows the sprawling development seen in other parts of Virginia’s Tidewater.


The Eastern Shore has been defined by farming and water-dependent businesses since it was settled. It once supported numerous agriculture-related industries such as catsup bottlers, tomato canners and crab pickers. Most of these are gone, leaving one of the most impoverished regions in Virginia.


In 1993, Northampton County took the lead in creating a different kind of industrial development, one that would address the needs of a people living in a special, irreplaceable, fragile landscape. Led by Tom Harris, the then County Administrator, and Tim Hayes, the then project manager, the county joined the town of Cape Charles to form an industrial development authority to create the Commonwealth’s first eco-industrial park. The concept was to create a location that would encourage “industrial symbiosis” that would maximize manufacturing efficiency while, ideally, minimizing the impact on the environment.


Industrial symbiosis describes a set of relationships in which one industry or craft consumes what otherwise would be the waste – barley hulls, waste heat, sulfur-filled air – of another. In practice, this can be seen in a paper plant saving investment in a boiler because it uses steam from a power plant, agricultural waste being converted into a diesel oil substitute, or artisans taking wood waste and using it for local crafts.


An eco-industrial park facilitates such symbiotic relationships and creates other shared efficiencies as well. These may include sharing personnel, such as safety consultants and human resource directors, or sharing shipping pallets or warehouse space. The industries that participate in eco-industrial relationships do not necessarily have to be “green” themselves; they may be heavy, smokestack industries, or any operation that could improve its environmental and economic performance through such relationships. It is, however, common for the discussion of eco-industrial relationships to lead to a reexamination of other aspects of building and system operation to increase efficiencies and reduce waste.


The hoped-for result of an eco-industrial park is that businesses improve both environmental and economic performance. The Cape Charles Park sought to include increased social sustainability in its design as well in order to achieve a business design that supported all three sustainability elements; environmental, economic and social. On the "social" side, the Cape Charles model measures such things as employee health benefits, “living” wages, daycare and car pooling.       


In December of 1994, President Bill Clinton designated the Cape Charles Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park a national enterprise community, giving it priority consideration for technical and financial resources. In 1995 Gov. George Allen designated the area a Virginia Enterprise Zone. William McDonough, a University of Virginia architecture professor internationally known for his work on sustainability issues, then led a team of private firms, local, state and federal government officials, as well as local stakeholders, in designing the park’s master plan.


The project attracted funds from the Environmental Protection Agency for brownfields remediation, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for planning, from the Economic Development Administration for community involvement, and from numerous other state and federal agencies for other elements from photovoltaics to the purchase of oceanfront for protection. The list of local, state and federal heroes who helped make this park happen is long. Prominent among these is Northampton County, which invested its precious financial resources in the land and building and the Town of Cape Charles, which was willing to innovate.


Northampton received the National Association of Counties Presidential Leadership Award for strategy in creation of the park. The Sustainable Technology Industrial Park was selected by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development as one of four parks to demonstrate ways the industrial facilities might be designed. The County and Town of Cape Charles were winners of the First Annual Joint Center Sustainable Community Awards for the Northampton County Sustainable Development Plan.


Today the first building in the park, a 30,930-square-

foot industrial building is erected and two-thirds leased. One of the tenants is about to begin construction of five power-producing windmills, each costing more than a million dollars.


A future column will deal with more details on the park as well as how and whether it works. Today, it is important to stress that a region in Virginia has already put into place what others only talk about. Despite the typical pressures of local politics, in Northampton County, key natural areas are being preserved, new development is stimulating in investment in historic buildings, eco-tourism is taking root and a new way of thinking about industry is blossoming.


-- April 21, 2003




























About Dan Slone


One James Center

901 East Cary Street

Richmond, VA 23219

(804) 775-1041

[email protected]




About "Sustainability"


This column will discuss how Virginians can apply the principles of sustainable development. We will look at related topics of stewardship and eco-industrial development, and we will critique specific activities of business, government and other institutions that come to our attention.


If you observe practices that stand out as sustainable or unsustainable, please share them with me at [email protected]