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It's Time to Find Solutions, Delegate Hodges Tells Environmental Community

On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, Delegate Keith Hodges rose on the General Assembly House Floor for a point of personal privilege and to make a point about the great need for environmental groups to find a way to stop saying NO to water issues plaguing the Middle Peninsula and other rural coastal Virginia regions and start to work together to find solutions.


This is Delegate Hodges’ speech.


Thank you, Madam Speaker.


Ladies and Gentlemen of the House.


Earlier this month I stood here and asked you all to think about environmental justice, and to look at the definition of environmental justice as it relates to the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens that come with the policies and regulations we enact here as legislators.


I greatly appreciate the nice comments from the gentleman from Roanoke and many of members from the other side of the aisle that are willing to continue the environmental justice discussion.


I want to take a moment to elaborate a little bit more and speak to some of my concerns with regard to groups outside of this body as it relates to environmental justice.


I stood here a couple of weeks ago and talked about solar energy and asked you all to think when the Commonwealth allows an urban center to benefit from energy savings while at the same time it costs our rural localities precious jobs.


When we talk about environmental justice as it relates to solar energy and the bills before the two Houses this session, it’s somewhat easier to relate it to solar energy.


People come in. They use big areas of rural land and build energy farms that urban centers benefit from.


Today I stand before you and ask you to think about that same environmental justice from a different perspective. Today I ask you to think about the numerous burdens that have been placed on rural coastal Virginia over the years and join me in finding solutions to benefit the people, families and businesses that used to – and can again – thrive in our areas rich in history.


In rural coastal Virginia, we’ve been battling a much larger problem, and carrying a much heavier burden, for decades.

That problem, Madam Speaker, is water. Rising water. Flood water. And access to quality drinking water.


Back in the 1980s, the Commonwealth enacted its signature water quality protection legislation – the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. It was needed, no doubt, to help bring much needed significant improvements to our most important waterways on the East Coast.


But over time, 23 laws and regulatory programs went into effect to help prevent overdevelopment and to protect water quality in the riparian areas, generally where the tidal wetlands and the uplands converge.


But in rural coastal Virginia our water running into the Bay for the most part is already clean. We have proven that time and again and have the science to back it up. Madam Speaker, it is because we are already green.


While well intended, those laws and regulatory programs prevent rural coastal Virginians from protecting their land and building more resilient shorelines.


To put it in perspective, a waterfront homeowner in a rural locality has more restrictions on what they can do in their own yard, to protect their own land, than a homeowner in an urban locality that is already built out in an intensely developed area.


This directly impacts the vulnerable communities in our rural coastal region. This impacts their way of way of life. This impacts people’s livelihoods.


One of the smallest localities in the Commonwealth – Mathews County – has just 9,000 people but has already suffered a $65 million dollar loss of land value directly and indirectly due to flooding. The loss of land value impacts not only property owners, but means less tax revenue is available for critical public services such as police, fire, and schools. This is a huge burden on a locality that has no private sector employers with 50 or more people and less than 800 total jobs including county government and public education.


Time and time again we have presented proposed solutions to these challenges – these burdens – that rural coastal Virginians face. And time and time again, Madam Speaker, we are told NO.


We’ve looked at solutions to build resilient communities while also protecting water quality. We’ve examined solutions that unite our urban and rural areas, bringing us all together to benefit. And time and time again, Madam Speaker, we are told NO.


Madam Speaker, each year I am back here in Richmond presenting a stack of bills to trying solve our water and flooding problems in the rural coastal region. I cannot thank Delegate Wilt, Delegate Lopez and Chairman Plum enough for their kind words, their encouragement and their patience as I present a slew of bills before what Delegate Lopez calls the “Hodgapalooza.”


But seriously, Madam Speaker, everyone that knows me knows that every bill I introduce puts water quality first. They know I am passionate about solving these problems and that I am relentless in fighting for solutions. They know that each year I am back with what most would admit are common sense approaches. But once again, Madam Speaker, we are met with a resounding NO because there are groups that are not looking for solutions.


Madam Speaker and ladies and gentlemen of the House, I am not sure whether or not I need to apologize before I go any further because I have never called anyone out on the House floor.


But during this session I have witnessed some behavior that I've never seen here at the Capitol and I feel that I must bring it to everyone’s attention.


One of the first things I learned is there is no such thing as an easy bill and don’t get married to your bill.


As the bill moves through this body, stakeholders and groups work with you and work together to amend the bill until you have peace in the valley.


If you don’t work it out, you debate the policy in committee or on the floor. You have a vote on that policy, Madam Speaker. It’s the Virginia Way.


Well, Madam Speaker, it seems that some groups here in Richmond no longer understand the Virginia Way.


Many of you are familiar with HB1674. A great bipartisan bill that brought an innovative approach in creating a provisional surface water withdrawal permit to help preserve the Potomac aquifer. Delegate Mullin and Senator Mason co-patroned the bill and I would like to thank them in their efforts with the legislation.


The administration had some concerns and opposed the bill. That's fine. It is healthy to have opposing views.


And the administration was the only party to speak in opposition before the House Ag Committees.


But it was so important to find a solution that the House Ag Committee unanimously moved it forward.


And as HB1674 worked its way through the House and made its way over to the Senate, we amended the bill to address the concerns of the administration.


And by the time HB1674 was presented before the Senate Committee the administration was neutral on the bill. We worked it and had a deal. The Virginia Way worked Madam.


Or so we thought.


But when the bill was presented before the Senate Ag Committee, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Virginia Conservation Network and The James River Association all lined up to oppose the bill.


Madam Speaker, I take offense to the fact that not one time, not once, did any of these groups come to see me to visit me or express their concerns.


And considering the number of bills I introduced to find solutions, not once did any of these groups even come to my office to talk about solutions.


They all know my office door is always open and I will do everything I can do to address their concerns. It's the Virginia way, Madam Speaker


Then I had HB1366 a bill before the House Chesapeake Subcommittee dealing with solving the problem of flooded septic systems in our rural coastal region.


As many as 600 of these systems exist in Gloucester County. Systems that are flooded with high tides on sunny days.


This is a public health crisis, Madam Speaker.


HB1366 came as a recommendation from the Virginia Department of Health to form a work group that would look at possibly creating a regulatory framework to add some dirt in the RPA to solve this public health crisis.


The Virginia Conservation Network and Friends of the Rappahannock posted on their website they were opposed to the legislation because it's set a bad precedent by possibly adding dirt in the RPA.


Once again it is fine to disagree with bill. That’s OK.


But, Madam Speaker, I strive to adhere to the Virginia way and to meet with me.


Well, Madam Speaker, we did meet and we came up with language to address their concerns.


We struck a deal, Madam Speaker. We do it all the time up here. It's the Virginia way, Madam Speaker.


Well, in subcommittee the Virginia way was torn to shreds as the Virginia Conservation Network and Friends of the Rappahannock both stood up and opposed the bill.


Ladies and gentlemen of the House, that's something you don't do up here. You don't break a deal. When you break a deal you break the trust. And you never get that trust back.


Each year I strive to bring solutions and each year these very groups just say no and while our vulnerable communities are drowning.


A very wise man once asked these groups: “do you want to do something meaningful or do you just want to raise money and slap a bumper sticker on the back of a car and say no?”


Ladies and gentlemen, I would think twice the next time you consider donating to any organization whose main goal is to print bumper stickers, raise money and just say NO to solutions that could make a difference in peoples lives.


I love the water and river as much as anyone. It's in my blood. But what I love most about the rural coastal region is the people, Madam Speaker. The families that live and play together and make it such a special place. The folks that I grew up with and the folks I know and love.


It is my job to craft policy that protects this special place. To ensure that environmental justice includes the fair distribution of benefits and burdens of environmental policy.


Madam Speaker, it's nearly impossible to protect these vulnerable populations when these groups only say NO, break the trust and trample upon this very institution.


Madam Speaker, I have never stood here and given a point of personal privilege like I have today.


I am hurt, I feel betrayed and I am angry. I consider each and every one of you in this body a friend. We might play some politics with some bills, but when we shake hands and make a deal, it's a deal. And not one of us here in this body would back away from a deal and betray that trust.


It doesn't matter if you're fighting for The Second Amendment. It doesn't matter if you are fighting for the environment, civil rights or the ERA. No matter how important the cause, you don't break that trust because when you do this very institution crumbles.


And when we have groups that are tearing down this institution, it doesn't matter if you are a Republican or Democrat. As a body, Madam Speaker, we should always stand together against anyone to keep anyone from tearing down this institution.


Thank you, Madam Speaker.