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

Article excerpt

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." The commitment was to develop in a manner that would simultaneously benefit business, the environment, and all of the county's people both now and in the future.

Through a partnership with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the Virginia Coastal Program, the county hired the nation's first local director of sustainable development. With funding from the NOAA, VCP, and other partners, this individual organized the Department of Sustainable Development and led Northampton in formulating a vision for the county's future and a strategy to achieve that vision.

What came to be known as the Sustainable Development Action Strategy was developed through an intensive, collaborative process involving community workshops, task forces, meetings, and events. The county involved a broad cross section of its diverse citizenry in the strategy development process, leveraging their combined experience to identify industries with realistic, significant, immediate, and ongoing potential for development. As a result of this process, Northampton decided to target the following industry sectors: agriculture, seafood/aquaculture, heritage tourism, research/education, arts/crafts, local products, and sustainable technologies. The community also identified the vital natural, historic, and community assets that would need to be preserved and capitalized on to develop and sustain these targeted industries. The final step in the process was the formulation of an action plan for implementing the strategy. In June 1994, the Board of Supervisors adopted the strategy as the county's official development policy and immediately kicked off its implementation.

One of the keys of the Sustainable Development Action Strategy was to leverage private investment in the county in ways that would achieve the integral goals of building an economic base and protecting natural and cultural assets. It was clear that public financial resources would have to be carefully focused to achieve the greatest possible return for each dollar invested. It was also clear that Northampton's strategy would need to be phased in over time using major impact projects as long-term building blocks. As such, county officials had to determine which course of action would yield the highest economic and environmental return in the shortest period of time. The decision: an ecological industrial park to be known as the Sustainable Technology Park and to be located in the Town of Cape Charles.

America's First Ecological Industrial Park

As it began planning the infrastructure to facilitate business and industrial development, Northampton set its sights on an industrial park that would truly be world class. The goal was to provide an "environment for excellence" that would attract and produce companies that would share the county's high business, environmental, and human equity standards. The vision was for a "green" industrial park--green as in the color of the environment and green as in the color of money.

Economically, the consensus vision was for a park that would help build a strong and diversified economic base by attracting and growing new companies and by retaining and expanding existing companies. The companies in the park would provide quality jobs with competitive wages and benefits and opportunities for training and advancement.

Environmentally, the park would preserve natural and cultural resources, protect habitat and water quality, and strive to eliminate waste and pollution. It would showcase green technology companies and maximize efficient use of resources through "industrial symbiosis." Industrial symbiosis is the notion that the byproducts of one industrial process or company can serve as the raw material for another industrial process or company.


Northampton County and its Department of Sustainable Development raised more than $8 million of local, state, and federal funding to develop the first phase of the eco-industrial park (Exhibit 1). This funding included a $2.5 million bond issue approved by local voters. To date, this public investment has leveraged another $8 million from private companies locating in the first phase of the park. This funding provided the means to achieve the initial objectives of the county's Sustainable Development Action Strategy.

The public funding covered everything necessary to open the facility as a world-class eco-industrial park, including master planning, community involvement, covenants and sustainability standards, environmental assessments, land purchase, engineering, permits and approvals, infrastructure construction, multi-tenant green building construction, a solar electricity system, natural area purchase, construction of lakes and wetlands, trails, amenities, marketing, legal costs, and the leasing of initial corporate tenants.

Private investment accomplished tenant improvements for office, research/development, and manufacturing space, as well as partial funding for the solar energy system. In addition, $7.8 million has been committed for development of a wind farm within the park that will produce more electricity than used by the entire county. The county has contracted to export this wind electricity to utilities within the northeastern United States energy grid.

Master Plan

A master plan for the park was created through an intensive three-day community design workshop known by architects as a "charette." The plan carefully integrated the park with the historic town of Cape Charles and the natural landscape adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay. The site centered on redevelopment of former industrial land surrounding the town's harbor. The specifics of the plan included roads, utilities, water, sewers, water and stormwater management, and wetland tertiary treatment for water recycling. Fully half of the site was reserved for "ecological infrastructure," including the Chesapeake Bay Coastal Dune Habitat Preserve, natural and created wetlands, and historic/archaeological sites. As an ecological industrial park, its facilities are based on the designs of natural systems. Electricity is generated from sunlight. A water reuse and recovery system is planned to recycle water for industrial use. Porous paving reduces stormwater runoff, which is collected and filtered by constructed wetlands.

Management Structure

The community formed its own development company to manage the park. Known as the Sustainable Technology Park Authority, the entity's legal name is the Joint Industrial Development Authority of Northampton County and Towns. The Authority is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Its seven-member board of directors is appointed by the governing bodies of Northampton County and the towns of Cape Charles, Cheriton, and Exmore.

Land Assembly

Slightly more than 200 acres of land was acquired in five transactions between 1995 and 1998. This included 30 acres adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay to be permanently preserved as a Coastal Dune Natural Area Preserve within the park. The land also included 45 acres of brownfields, including a former town dump and abandoned industrial land adjacent to Cape Charles Harbor. The United States Environmental Protection Agency funded environmental assessments that documented the lack of any hazardous materials or pollution problems associated with the site.


Detailed engineering designs were created based on the vision and plans of the original community charette. Construction documents were subsequently prepared for the first phase of roads, utilities, and other infrastructure to serve the park. Local, stare, and federal permits and approvals were obtained through a streamlined process, as representatives of most of the agencies involved had participated in the community design charette. Ground was broken on October 17, 1996, in a ceremony during the second national eco-industrial roundtable in Cape Charles. The first phase of roads and utilities was completed in 1998.

Sustainable Technology Incubator

Completed in January 2000, the showpiece of the Sustainable Technology Park's first phase is a 31,000-square-feet multi-tenant manufacturing/office building. The building meets the U.S. Green Building Council's standards as a "green" building. It features an integrated solar photovoltaic roof system that converts sunlight into 42,000 watts of electricity. With the building operating at full capacity, this will provide up to half of the building's total annual electrical demand.

Other sustainability features include skylights for natural-day lighting, a common meeting and conference center, enhanced insulation, interior environmental sensing, carbon monoxide sensors and alarms, low-energy lighting, low-water fixtures, porous parking lot paving, and native non-irrigated landscaping. The building, which was constructed primarily from local materials, has enhanced structural strength and a longer life span than typical designs. Interior space can be divided flexibly to accommodate up to eight companies for the purposes of manufacturing, research and development, office space, and other uses.

The building's features are designed to not only reduce energy and resource demands, but also to reduce operating costs and to increase occupant productivity and health. As such, the building is expected to be superior economically as well as environmentally.

Ecological Infrastructure

In addition to the more traditional infrastructure of roads, utilities, and buildings, Northampton County and its partners integrated key natural resources into the Sustainable Technology Park. A local/state/federal funding package of more than $727,000 was used to fund the park's "ecological infrastructure." Included is a natural preserve, beaches and dunes, a critical migratory bird habitat, constructed wetlands and ponds, a system of trails and boardwalks, more than 4,000 new trees, and a total of 90 acres of protected natural area.

This ecological infrastructure created a win-win-win synergy among the economic development, environmental protection, and community improvement objectives of the park. The natural amenities have enhanced economic development efforts by helping to attract the corporate tenants the county has targeted. Without the projected financial income produced by the corporate tenants of the technology park, it would not have been possible to fund protection of the natural areas or construction of the trails, wetlands, and ponds. The community, meanwhile, has gained a new natural area park, which has proven to be popular among joggers, birdwatchers, and families alike.

Economic Results

The sustainable technology strategy already has attracted several diverse companies to Northampton County and its eco-industrial park. The Norwegian-based company, Hauge Technologies, develops and manufactures "pressure exchanger" equipment that significantly reduces the cost and energy demands of converting sea water to fresh water. This technology promises to make safe drinking water more affordable and available to more people worldwide. Transforming Technologies is another start-up company in the park. It is developing computer security and identification devices. ProVento America, Inc., is a subsidiary of a German wind energy developer that has initially leased offices for 12 employees and expects to grow to 50 employees within five years. ProVento also has leased sites for six wind turbines that will produce 7.8 megawatts of electricity to be sold into the national power grid. The park also has provided land for the expansion of the county's largest manufacturer, Bayshore Concrete Products Corporation, which employs more than 400 people.

In addition to the companies on site in the park, Northampton's sustainable development efforts have attracted several companies that have located throughout the county and its towns. One of these companies, Atlantis Energy Systems, is the successor of a Swiss firm that produces "architecturally integrated photovoltaics." These are commercial and residential roofing, siding, windows, and skylights that generate electricity from the sun. Scientific and Environmental Associates is a consulting firm that provides coastal resources management services to government and corporate clients the world over. The company moved its headquarters to Northampton because of its commitment to sustainable development. Delisheries is a homegrown company using space in the park's incubator to produce gourmet cookie mixes.

A total of 800,000 square feet of building area is planned for future phases of the park, which will provide space for 200 or more companies and 1,200 to 1,500 jobs. The park's first incubator building includes 31,000 square feet of space to accommodate its first four to six companies and as many as 100 employees. Depending on market conditions, buildout of the park will occur over the next two or three decades, providing a long-term public framework for private investment.

In the year since the park opened, these companies have combined to create more than 50 new jobs, a significant impact given Northampton's rural economy. Over the next two years, they are expected to create an additional 50 jobs and to bring $15 million in direct real estate and equipment investment to the county. Cape Charles Wind Farm alone is valued at $7.8 million and will generate $120,000 annually in business personal property, machinery, and tools taxes.

Annual debt service for the park is approximately $200,000, with annual operating and maintenance expenses of about $100,000. As soon as the first building is fully leased it will generate an annual rental income of $180,000. Combined with annual tax revenues of $120,000, the park's direct revenues and expenditures are balanced for the first phase. The financial sustainability of the park will remain a key measure of success as development continues.

Toward a Sustainable Future

Building on the success of the eco-industrial park, Northampton already is aggressively moving forward with the next phase of its sustainable development strategy. One key project is the reclamation of the county sanitary landfill as a "seaside ecological farm." The goal is to turn trash into treasure by transforming an economic and environmental challenge into a valuable community asset. The county landfill will reach capacity within two years, at which time it will have to be closed and capped. It forms the highest point in the county and affords breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, coastal wilderness marshlands, and a string of barrier islands. Conceptual development plans include a network of hiking trails, a high-point observation platform, and the restoration of ponds, wetlands, forest, and other bird habitat.

The seaside ecological farm project already has been selected as a Brownfield Redevelopment Showcase by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which has committed $400,000 to support the project. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has committed $10,000 to fund partner workshops for project planning. The county also has entered into a Rebuild America partnership with the United States Department of Energy to develop the renewable energy components.

The county is investigating the potential of a renewable energy farm that would harvest methane from the landfill, bio-fuels from soybeans grown on the county's farms, and wind energy from the strong coastal winds. The six wind energy turbines planned for the landfill property will produce 7.8 megawatts of clean renewable electricity to be exported to the northeastern United States power grid. Early financial projections indicate that tax revenue from these turbines will offset a significant portion of the debt service required to fund the multi-million dollar landfill closure costs. The county has applied for a grant/loan from the United States Department of Agriculture for construction of a waste transfer station.

Northampton's strategic plan also focuses on ways to further support the county's growing aquaculture industry, which involves cultivating fish and shellfish for harvest. The most profitable specie being grown in Northampton's aquaculture farms is the famous Cherrystone Clam, which has grown from less than a $1 million dollar industry in 1990 to more than $20 million in 2001. Other fish and shellfish species also are being developed for commercial aquaculture farming. And by integrating aquaculture with agriculture, the county hopes to create eco-industrial synergies whereby soy-diesel byproducts serve as fish food and fish farm effluent provides nutrient-rich agricultural fertilizer. Virginia Tech, The Nature Conservancy, and Cornell University's Work and Environment Initiative have provided initial support for this work.


Northampton's Sustainable Technology Park is living proof that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive and that these goals can be pursued simultaneously to enhance a community's overall quality of life. Although the county has a long way to go to completely overcome its severe poverty and to rebuild a healthy economic base, its experience demonstrates that integrating asset development and protection in an action-oriented, community-based plan is a powerful strategy for success. An extensive local, state, and federal partnership for project financing has been key to leveraging private investment in Northampton's development strategy thus far and will continue to be relied upon as the county continues its course toward a sustainable future.

LANCE METZLER is the county administrator of Northampton County, Virginia. He served previously as town manager in Kingstree, South Carolina, and in West Point, Virginia. Mr. Metzler holds a bachelor's degree in urban and regional planning from East Carolina University and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. MARY LECHNER, director of finance, has more than 10 years of experience in local government finance, having worked previously for the County of Chesterfield, Virginia, and the City of Norfolk, Virginia. TIMOTHY HAYES, director of sustainable development, has 20 years of experience leading innovative planning and development in the western United States and Virginia. A graduate of the University of Colorado, Mr. Hayes earned the Presidential Leadership Award from the National Association of Counties for authorship of Northampton's Sustainable Development Action Strategy.

Exhibit 1


Infrastructure Funding:

 National Oceanic and Atmospheric
  Administration, Virginia
  Department of Environmental
  Quality, Virginia Coastal
  Program                              $173,000
 Virginia Department of
  Transportation                       $665,200
 Virginia Governor Opportunity Fund    $170,000
 U.S. Department of Agriculture        $490,000
 U.S. Department of Commerce           $500,000

TOTAL                                $1,998,200

Sustainable Technology Incubator

 National Oceanic and Atmospheric
  Administration, Virginia Coastal
  Program                               $10,000
 Northampton County                  $1,900,000
 Energy Recovery, Inc.                 $196,320
 U.S. Department of Agriculture        $500,000
 U.S. Department of Energy,
  Virginia Alliance for Solar
  Electricity                          S146,422

TOTAL                                $2,752,742

Ecological Infrastructure Funding:

 National Oceanic and Atmospheric
  Administration, Virginia
  Department of Environmental
  Quality, Virginia Coastal Program    $106,600
 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
  Virginia Department of
  Conservation and Recreation          $346,000
 U.S. Environmental Protection
  Agency, The Nature Conservancy        $75,000
 Northampton County                    $200,000

TOTAL                                  $727,600


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