Economic Development and Environmental Protection: The Northampton County, Virginia, Experience

By Metzler, Lance; Lechner, Mary et al. | Government Finance Review, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Economic Development and Environmental Protection: The Northampton County, Virginia, Experience


Metzler, Lance, Lechner, Mary, Hayes, Timothy, Government Finance Review


Northampton County's Sustainable Technology Park is living proof that economic and environmental interests need not be mutually exclusive.

Economic development and environmental protection often are viewed as competing interests at best and mutually exclusive at worst. Clean air and water, protection of wildlife, and resource conservation often are pitted against jobs and business expansion. Proposals for new industry may be met with cries of "not in my backyard" because of fears of pollution and negative community impacts.

Despite this seeming incompatibility, Northampton County, Virginia, has opened the first phase of a new kind of industrial park in which waste streams are cycled into revenue streams and industrial processes are based on the designs of natural systems. This "ecological industrial park" is part of an innovative county strategy whereby economic development is protecting valuable environmental assets and environmental protection is fostering development of a sustainable economy.

The Land Between Two Waters

Venture across the Chesapeake Bay from the mainland of Virginia to the southern tip of the slender finger of land known as Virginia's Eastern Shore and you will find Northampton County. With the Chesapeake on the west and the Atlantic on the east, Native Americans referred to this Virginia treasure as "the land between two waters." Northampton County is a place rich in natural and historic resources, including miles of pristine beaches, a string of preserved barrier islands, thriving marshes and tidal creeks, fish and shellfish, birds and wildlife, open land and clean water, small towns and historic villages, woodlands, and farms. Recognizing the global importance of this ecosystem, the United Nations has designated much of Northampton County and the surrounding region as a World Biosphere Reserve.

In sharp contrast to the county's natural and historic wealth, many of its people live in severe economic poverty. The closure of nearly all of the area's seafood and agricultural processing plants during the 1980s resulted in the loss of more than 1,500 jobs. By the early 1990s, 28 percent of the population was living in poverty, while 10 percent of the county's homes lacked plumbing and 12 percent lacked adequate sanitary facilities.

Having declined economically to become one of the poorest communities in Virginia and in the nation, the county began to wrestle with difficult, seemingly contradictory questions. Should the environment be sacrificed for economic development? Should a stagnant economy, lack of jobs, and poverty be accepted as the price of protecting a unique environment? Should the county try to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection that would provide for "manageable" levels of both poverty and pollution? None of these scenarios was acceptable.

Triple Bottom Line

Rather than compromising the local economy for the environment or vice versa, the county instead decided to pursue a strategy that would simultaneously maximize both the economy and the environment for the benefit of the entire community. As one member of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors put it: "We must do business today in a way that won't put us out of business tomorrow.

The community and its elected governing body came to understand that they were trustees of a valuable portfolio of natural, cultural, and human assets. Consequently, they began to explore ways to invest in and protect these assets in order to build a strong and lasting economy and to preserve one of the last truly exceptional unspoiled environments on America's Atlantic coast. Success would be measured in terms of a triple bottom line: economy, environment, and equity.

Sustainable Development Action Strategy

In 1993, the county formally began its sustainable development initiative with a mission to "build a strong and lasting economy by capitalizing on and protecting Northampton's rich natural, cultural, and human assets. …

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Economic Development and Environmental Protection: The Northampton County, Virginia, Experience
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