Sussex County Delaware

Land Use Decision
System Needs Overhaul

Sussex Beat, Feb. 5, 2001

NOTE: Sussex Beat is a mix of news, analysis and commentary by Eric Magill, publisher of Sussex County Online.


Eric Magill, Sussex County Online

SC Online

Land Use Decisions ...

Regardless of the outcome of Sussex County Council's vote on Freeman Communities' Americana Bayside proposal on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001, the project has brought sharply into focus the need for drastic change in the county's land use decision-making process.

The current process has been particularly unfair to the county's coastal residents, who are seeing the destruction of the way of life that gave rise to the nickname "The Quiet Resorts" in the Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island areas.

Residents who not so long ago could plop their blankets down on uncrowded beaches, drive uncongested roads, and fish and boat on inland bays without worrying about playing bumper boats, have lost many of those qualities they hold so dear to uncontrolled development.

How did this happen?

Certainly, a fair share of damage was committed in the beach towns themselves with the replacement of single-family cottages with multi-unit dwellings up and down the beach.

But a large part of the problem is that outsiders on county council have been rezoning parcels of land in the unincorporated areas in Councilman George Cole's district to higher densities without regard for the wishes of local residents and officials in and out of the beach communities.

We should note here that we are encouraged by and appreciate Councilmen Finley B. Jones' and Lynn Rogers' promises this weekend to vote for a lower density for Americana Bayside than the 2,200 homes recommended by the county's Planning & Zoning Commission.

But their sentiments on Freeman's proposal aside, we still have an unfair system that allows Councilmen Dale Dukes, Vance Phillips, Jones and Rogers, all of whom live 30 to 50 minutes away from the coastal zone, to make land use decisions without any accountability to coastal residents because election laws only allow residents of a councilmanic district to vote in that district's election.

In addition, the county's Planning & Zoning Commission doesn't have a single member from the coastal zone -- the area where the lion's share of the county's development is occurring -- because the other four councilmen have refused to allow Councilman Cole to appoint anyone to that commission. This, while allowing Councilman Phillips to appoint his own brother-in-law to that body.

So without drastic changes in the county's land use decision-making process, coastal residents will still have what they've always had -- a bunch of outsiders telling them what is in their best interests.

As Cole says, "There's a little bit of arrogance, especially from other representatives of council, who think they know better what is best for us in coastal Sussex County."

The Americana Bayside proposal is a perfect example of that. Most of Councilman Cole's constituents and all local municipal officials in his district have strongly opposed the rezoning of the project's 865 acres west of Fenwick Island to MR-RPC. They believe Freeman can build a first class development with the current zoning, which would allow 1,000 or so homes.

Most of the proponents of the rezoning have been Freeman employees and vendors, many of whom don't even live in the state, let alone Cole's district. Witness the feverish, last-minute letter writing campaign to county councilmen this weekend featuring letters from people in Ocean Pines and Easton -- even from across the bridge.

Yet Councilmen Dukes and Phillips stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the wishes of the people who live there and whose lives would be irreversibly impacted by a vote to allow Freeman Communities to build more than 2,000 homes on the patchwork of parcels that Freeman has turned into one large property.

The question, then, is how to make councilmen like Dukes and Phillips accountable to the taxpayers of the coastal zone, or better yet, put these land use decisions back in the hands of the people most qualified to make those decisions -- the local residents whose lives will be most impacted.

One suggestion has been to redistrict the county to give the coastal zone greater representation than it has now, but we doubt the county could be redistricted to make the land use decision process fair to the voters of any of the councilmanic districts.

Another way would be to make all five councilmanic seats at-large so they would be accountable to all of the county's voters. As it stands now, councilmen make local land use decisions in other councilmanic districts without fear of reprisal from those district's voters come the next election.

Yet another suggestion has been for the coastal communities to break away from Sussex County and form their own county.

We, however, feel the best way to put land use decisions in the county's unincorporated areas back into the hands of local residents would be to create separate Planning & Zoning Commissions in each councilmanic district and give each commission, not the council, the final say on land use decisions in its district.

That way, local people would be making their own land use decisions, not outsiders from 30 to 50 minutes away.

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