Barnett retires from Southampton County post

Published 11:07 am Saturday, October 2, 2010

COURTLAND—The Southampton County Department of Building and Zoning doesn’t have its offices in the main administration building. Rather, the inspectors work from an adjacent small house that once served as the home economics building for the old Courtland High School.

The rooms of the house have been converted to offices. In one, decorative curtains hang from the windows, drawings of Courtland hang from the walls and an old fireplace stands along one wall. A chair upholstered with pineapples welcomes visitors.

It’s not your typical county government office. Then again, Robert Barnett, who has worked for Southampton for 18 years and two months, is not your typical county employee.

“I have enjoyed working in the county,” Barnett said Wednesday, his last day on the job before his retirement. “It’s a low-key, low-pressure job. Politics does not play a big role in the staff’s positioning, which gives you the opportunity to do what you need to do.”

Starting as a building inspector in 1992, Barnett became building official within a couple of years and then became zoning administrator. He was also the county’s erosion and sediment control official, stormwater management administrator, subdivision agent and zoning administrator. He then became the director of community development, which encompasses all of those jobs.

“In Southampton County, most employees wear several hats,” Barnett smiled.

He is also a conservator of the peace, certified through the U.S. Department of Justice, which means that he can write summonses for people to appear in court.

“I don’t write as many as my inspectors do, but I still write them,” he said.

Barnett grew up in Williamsburg and attended James Blair High School. He started out working for himself doing electrical and mechanical work in Newport News, then worked for the City of Suffolk as its building official for 16 years before coming to Southampton.

He and his wife, Phyllis, now live in the City of Franklin, but had lived in Southampton for all but three years of his time working for the county.

As for retirement, Barnett said he has no plans “for the next six months or so.”

“Then I’m sure I’ll be a little restless and I’ll probably do something,” he chuckled. “We have a cottage at Nags Head (N.C.). We spend a lot of time there. I used to do some boating, but I have sold my boat. I’ll probably do some fishing and just spend a lot more time down at Nags Head.

“I’m sure there will be some plans, but right now after working 40-plus years, it’s going to take some time to adjust. I’ve been planning it, but it just got to be the right time with the retirement system. I feel that now is the time.”

Asked how Southampton has changed during his tenure, Barnett said, “Oddly enough, the county hasn’t changed a great deal.

“There is still very much farmland and agriculture use, and very little industry in the county. But I think it’s on the verge of change, with the Turner Tract being developed. There are a lot of possibilities there.”

Barnett said another development opportunity lay with the building on General Thomas Highway that once housed International Paper Co.’s Converting Innovation Center.

“That building could be available now for some industry to go into,” he said. “The county (leaders) knows that they’re going to have to start mixing residential use with commercial use in order to ever bring industry in. You have to have both. If you don’t have the workforce, then industry is not coming here.”

He said Southampton would be in direct competition with neighboring Greensville and Sussex counties to attract industry. Coincidently, both localities have announced plans within the last month to move forward with large industrial parks.

In the wake of Barnett’s departure, the county promoted Lee Copeland to building official. Beth Lewis has been promoted to director of community development. She will also continue as secretary for the planning commission.

Barnett had nothing but praise for both Copeland and Lewis.

“I’m sure they are capable,” he said. “Mr. Copeland has been with the county for 14 years, so he’s well suited for the county. Beth is relatively new, but she has the credentials and the background as a certified planner.”