Claremont hires Bowman for Chesapeake Bay compliance

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Claremont’s Town Council on Jan. 20 awarded a contract to Bowman Consulting to review erosion and sediment control plans for compliance with Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

The state law requires counties, cities and towns in the Tidewater area to ensure construction projects within their incorporated limits comply with the Act’s protections for the bay and its tributaries.

According to DEQ spokesman Gregory Bilyeu, the state agency hadn’t completed its review of Claremont’s Chesapeake Bay program as of Jan. 29, nor made any official findings of non-compliance. However, a preliminary report of the findings state Department of Environmental Quality inspectors made June 15 through Nov. 29, 2020, concluded “the Bay Act is not being implemented within the Town of Claremont, and has not been for some time.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

According to Mayor George Edwards, the town is now waiting for the DEQ to send a list of specific duties the state believes are Claremont’s responsibility, at which time the contract with Bowman will be amended to include those duties.

“At that point, the town will be in 100% compliance with DEQ,” Edwards said.

Bowman will be working on an as-needed basis, the mayor added, with the cost to the town varying based on the size of the project being evaluated and how much work, if any, Bowman will need to do. The town’s contract with Bowman lists hourly rates of $59 to $249 depending on which Bowman employees become involved, but the town is “not anticipating” a tax increase being needed to fund the added expense at this time, Edwards said.

Citing the town’s alleged Bay Act non-compliance and an Oct. 26 letter from Surry County officials suggesting Claremont relinquish its charter as a separate governmental entity as a solution, Howell Godfrey — who chairs the town’s Planning Commission — has started an online petition on seeking to start the process for doing exactly that. The petition had 68 signatures as of Feb. 1.

The petition further claims Claremont has “planning and economic disparities” and is “in need of financial assistance” for a water system upgrade.

The hard copy petition needs no fewer than 100 signatures in order to start the process outlined in section 15.2-3531 of the Code of Virginia, which requires that copies of the petition go before Claremont’s Town Council and a Surry County Circuit Court judge. As of Jan. 30, 41 had been deemed valid, Godfrey said.

Were the town to complete the consolidation process with Surry County and give up its charter, it would cease to have its own elected government separate from the county. But that’s not what this petition is trying to accomplish — at least, not right away — according to Donna Skinner, who’s been working with Godfrey to collect signatures.

“This does not mean the county can come in and take our community,” Skinner said. “This means that we the voters in the town of Claremont have the say as to whether or not we are consolidating with Surry County. This whole petition is to force our governing body to go to the table with Surry County.”

“They’ll have one year once this petition is submitted and served on them to go to the county … If they do not, then the judge of the Circuit Court in this area, which would be Surry, will mandate that five citizens be appointed from the community to sit down with Surry County and talk about the consolidation or what our needs are,” Skinner added. “It will take it from the hands of the governing body and give it to the citizens, and then once that is done, a referendum will be called by the court. So, basically, we’re giving the town officials a chance to do their job, but if they don’t do their job, we have recourse.”

Godfrey and Skinner aren’t backing down from their efforts now that the town has contracted with Bowman.

“The town made a brash and, in my opinion, stupid decision in hiring Bowman without at least holding a bidding process,” Godfrey said. “These types of actions are exactly why fellow citizens and myself feel that the town needs to consolidate.”

To that end, he, Skinner and the “Concerned Citizens of Claremont” Facebook group hosted an informational meeting on the matter at noon on Jan. 30 in the Claremont Masonic Lodge at 77 Bailey Ave. In-person attendance was capped at 10 in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions, but others were able to participate via the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Godfrey said he invited representatives of the town and county governing bodies to speak — an invitation Surry County Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Elliott accepted but Edwards did not.

The mayor has a different take on the situation. He calls the petition to dissolve the town part of a “county agenda” and argues that because town residents pay taxes to Surry County on top of their town taxes, Claremont residents should be entitled to the same county services afforded those who wish to build in Surry’s unincorporated areas, namely Bay Act reviews by the county’s Planning and Zoning staff.

“To refresh, this situation has been caused by the County denying taxpayer funded services to residents of Claremont but continuing to provide those same services to other County residents,” Edwards posted to the town’s Facebook page Jan. 26. “This County agenda is continuing to be pushed locally by our planning commission chair & another resident that needs no introduction. These individuals have decided NOT to be a part of our community & have decided to work with the County on their attack of Claremont. Sad, very sad. Everyone should understand that because of the County denial, the Town HAD to hire Bowman & more of YOUR tax money will have to be spent to pay for these services.”

Surry Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Elliott, however, says to his knowledge the county has never monitored Chesapeake Bay compliance in Claremont, nor in the town of Surry. Surry County’s third incorporated town, Dendron, is outside the Chesapeake Bay preservation area.

“While towns and counties may enter into such a Memorandum of Understanding, the County Attorney has advised me that it is not required, and in the absence of a voluntary agreement, the Town is responsible for its own Chesapeake Bay compliance program,” Elliott wrote to Edwards Dec. 15, 2020.

“When we tried to come in as a county and talk with the town’s mayor, we were vilified, as if we were trying to come in and strong-arm the town, which is far from the truth,” Elliott said during the Jan. 30 meeting. “We’re just trying to give the town some viable options to help in this process and when we did so, again, I became vilified.”

The “resident that needs no introduction” in Edwards’ post is a reference to Skinner, who according to The Smithfield Times archives, has a history of disputes with the town.

In 2016, she sued Claremont’s mayor, vice mayor, town clerk and a fellow council member, claiming her rights under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act had been violated when the town charged her $10.92 for repeated FOIA requests. After an eight-hour trial, Surry Circuit Court Judge Nathan Curtis Lee dismissed all three counts brought against the town and its officials, concluding that the town had tried its best to work within the legal bounds of FOIA considering Skinner “was overwhelming the town with FOIA requests.”

Two years earlier, she had sued the town and won — again over FOIA violations — in General District Court. That time, she had argued she was being denied access to certain documents because other people weren’t asking for them.