Some consensus, but key differences remain
Under the direction of a skilled facilitator, the newly constituted Southern Shores Town Council spent about five hours at a Feb. 16 retreat working on fashioning a strategic plan for the community.
For a good chunk of that time, some consensus and collegiality prevailed, leading one resident to declare: “This is the best town meeting I’ve ever seen.” But when it came to several core issues — town development and government transparency — the same debates that dominated a polarizing town election last November re-emerged, highlighting the philosophical fault lines in the new five-member council.
Areas of broad agreement at the meeting included identifying the town's stable oceanfront and debt-free budgets with a strong fund balance as strengths. There was also agreement on the need to keep a closer watch on the General Assembly in order to be "proactive" on legislation that impacts the town. Another area of consensus was to encourage more involvement and cooperation among citizens, town government and area organizations by opening up the Pitts Center to be used for enrichment classes and other programs.
The facilitator, Cathy Davison — executive director of the Albemarle Commission and the Albemarle Region's Council of Government — did her best to keep the tone of the meeting positive and productive. She also promised to compile a strategic plan outline within two weeks, then make revisions and submit a final draft after council review.
The council itself has been dramatically reshaped by last fall’s elections. Three incumbents were defeated by a trio of challengers — Chris Nason, Fred Newberry and Gary McDonald. Nason ran primarily as a conciliator focused on the town’s young families. Newberry and McDonald were part of a bloc of challengers stressing the need to prioritize the town’s ambiance over development and to institute a more open government.
And, for all the good will, those issues re-emerged at the Feb. 16 meeting.
Mayor Tom Bennett identified "aging infrastructure" as a major town weakness, and Council Member Leo Holland pointed to "a small commercial area" and "lack of adequate walking and bike paths.” Newberry, however, took issue with a town vision statement that he said appeared to give the green light to more development.
"We've got a vision statement that's in chaos," he said. "That's not good, because the vision statement really sets the tone for the whole strategic plan."
Newberry referred to an earlier vision statement identifying the town as "a quiet seaside residential community comprised primarily of small low density neighborhoods consisting of single family homes,” as in sync with residents' wishes. But he was critical of the current vision statement adopted by the town council in 2013, which identified the town as "an inviting place to live and visit. Residents and the general public shall be encouraged to use and enjoy [the town's] resources, infrastructure, services, natural areas, recreation areas, public trust areas, and open spaces..."
After the meeting Newberry told the Sentinel the earlier statement is clear and summarizes "why we moved here in the first place," while the later version "seems to open the town up more to the public and commercial development" and risks losing the "unique" qualities that set it apart from its more developed neighbors.
Addressing similar issues, McDonald stressed the urgent need to rebuild trust in town government among the citizens by working to dramatically increase and improve government communication and transparency. He also cited the need to preserve the town's traditional ambiance and environment, with maintaining the town's maritime forest a top priority.
Nason appeared to assume the role of "mediator" in the meeting, echoing the need to stop clear-cutting of trees and proposing development of incentives for property owners to preserve trees, while also agreeing that "trust has been severely eroded" in the town government.
Nason identified that erosion of trust as part of a larger "negative political environment" the new council has inherited. His proposed solution: "We need to work on building each other up and...have an open mind to listen to other people."
In response to Holland's identification of "outlying gossip" as a significant threat to the town and a hindrance to rebuilding citizens' trust, Newberry said "the way to put that negative talk to rest [is] by our actions."
McDonald agreed. Citing what he viewed as a lack of information related to the Town Code Update Project, he said this was "a perfect example" of the need for more transparency and keeping citizens and the council "in the know." He added that the project and the way it's been presented have "caused a lot of unrest in our community, and I think we need to revisit that."
Another sore point emerged when Newberry criticized the town council’s procedures in making committee appointments — particularly appointments to the selection committee that nominated members of the South and East Dogwood Trails Task Force. That task force has been given the sensitive job of coming up with recommendations for those trails that inevitably involve decisions on tree cutting and infrastructure repair.
At the Feb. 16 meeting, Bennett denied any bias in the appointment process. But Newberry said, “There was no selection criteria whatsoever. If you had a 'Save our trees' sign in your yard, you were automatically blackballed."
For his part, Nason stated that discussion of these controversial issues should continue only until the council makes a decision on them by majority vote. At that point, he said, although they may "not be happy with the result," every council member will know he has been heard and should abide by that decision.
To continue the debate beyond that point, Nason added, is "kind of wasting the council's time...So I'm in favor of getting it out there, let's talk about it and let's move past it."