Sussex County Delaware

County, State Should
Get Out of Land Use

Sussex Beat, June 8, 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 ...

Events in the past two weeks have demonstrated more than ever the necessity for State of Delaware and Sussex County officials to get out of the land use business.

From a forum on land use planning to a vote on property owners' consent in changes in subdivisions to two bills that intrude on the rights of voters, state and county officials have proven that not only do they not have the best interests of the people most affected by their decisions at heart, they don't often even know what those interests are.

As for the county's interference in local land use issues, the futility of the county's efforts were never more apparent than the two-year, seven-draft debate over property owners' consent in subdivision changes.

Under the ordinance finally passed at council's regular meeting on Tuesday, June 5, 2001, developers only need 51 percent of the property owners' consent to obtain a public hearing on a proposed change.

That means county council has now practically assured that such personal, localized decisions will be made by five planning and zoning commissioners who have better things to do, who will not be affected by their decisions, and whose opinions and recommendations are regularly disregarded by council.

You also have to wonder whether the five planners will even understand under what circumstances 51 percent consent may be obtained.

It's entirely likely that developers, owning multiple lots in their subdivisions for which they would receive one vote apiece, could generate that much consent by themselves. Planners then might hear compelling arguments from both sides of the issue and make a decision based on the fact that there was 51 percent consent.

Council members reasoned that the new process will give both sides a fair chance to be heard on such issues, but the question remains: Why is the county involving itself in such localized squabbles in the first place? These are matters best resolved between the developers, property owners, and if necessary, the courts.

The fact is, the county has grown so diverse that there's no way for council members Dale Dukes, Vance Phillips, Finley B. Jones, Lynn Rogers and George Cole to understand or appreciate the desires of county residents outside their districts.

The county should simply get out of the land use business and appoint planning and zoning commissions for each councilmanic district.

Dukes, who last week tried to take credit for recent council votes that dramatically downsized proposed developments even though he voted for the higher densities himself, practically begged to get out of the land use process back in April when he asked municipalities to annex all of the land around them so the county wouldn't have to make those decisions.

Of course, it's ironic that council members who complain often and loud about the state's interference in local land use planning have no qualms about their own interference in those matters.

And that brings us to the state and its band of bureaucrat planners, led by State Planning Coordinator David S. Hugg III.

Hugg proved his lack of understanding of local land use issues at an AARP forum on land use planning at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View on Thursday, May 31, 2001.

Responding to questions, Hugg actually told audience members that they should drive around to find other towns they would like to emulate and contact county and state officials with their ideas.

Apparently lost on him was the fact that those in the audience like the Ocean View and Bethany Beach areas the way they are and want growth to be in accordance with their existing character. More than anything, they are fearful of becoming  like other towns, particularly the over-run Rehoboth Beach and Lewes areas.

So instead of protecting the quality of life those residents enjoy and desperately want to preserve, Hugg is suggesting that their towns aren't worth the dirt they're built on and should be changed to whatever his vision of the ideal town is.

And as if the state just can't interfere enough, we now have two more bills that would basically allow state bureaucrats and officials to tell municipalties what they can and can't do when making their own land use decisions.

In one, House Bill 255, towns would have to rezone all land within their borders to conform to their Comprehensive Land Use Plan within one year of adopting their plan.

Typically, rezonings don't occur until a rezoning request has been made and has gone through local rezoning procedures. That gives municipalities some measure of control. In addition, in some cases a property owner may not want to rezone a piece of property.

Under this bill, municipalities and property owners would lose some of their control and freedoms. Further, if comprehensive plans were revised, rezoned lands would have to be rezoned all over again to conform to the new plan.

Even better is a bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Sharp (D-Pinecrest). His bill would require all annexations to be approved by the General Assembly.

Considering that many annexation decisions are made by referendum, which shows the will of the people, it's the ultimate in arrogance for the state to try to tell the residents of a town who, what, where, when and how they can provide for their own growth.

I understand that local officials don't always make the best land use decisions, but they are far more in synch with what their constituents want than county and state officials not at all affected by those decisions.

The county's and state's involvement in those decisions should merely be on a consulting basis, not on a decision-making basis. It's time for both to get out of the land use business.

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