Debate in Roxana
Topic of Discussion
SC Online Content Editor
Land use, taxes, land use, the Inland Bays, land use, the environment, land use, traffic, land use and campaign funding.
Those were the topics addressed -- and sometimes not addressed -- by candidates for Sussex County Council's Councilmanic Districts 4 and 5 at a forum on Monday, Oct. 7.
Did we say land use?
Fifth District candidates Peggy Baunchalk and Vance Phillips and Fourth District candidates George Cole and Wolfgang von Baumgart answered questions posed by the audience of about 50 people at the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company hall in the candidates' forum sponsored by the Sussex County League of Women Voters.
None of the candidates is a newcomer to Sussex County politics. Cole, of near Ocean View, is a second-generation council member occupying the seat previously held by his father and then his mother. Phillips, of Laurel, is a one-term incumbent.
Baunchalk has been a Fenwick Island Town Council member for 10 years and town council president for 9. Von Baumgart, whose home near Millsboro was the subject of a debate that spawned the ill-fated county housing code proposal several years ago, has been a vocal opponent of council policies in recent years.
Von Baumgart, running for the seat on the Independent Party ticket, wasted no time lambasting the current council. He criticized the proposed land use plan update as inadequate to meet the county's needs and said the council's land use decisions have been tantamount to "a mad, headlong dash into suburbanization" and said the rapid growth "will come back to haunt us."
The plan, Baumgart said, "is not worth the money we've spent on it." He added the council's record on land use shows "intellectual poverty" and "short-term thinking."
Von Baumgart said the council -- made up of two realtors (Cole and Phillips), a sign company owner (Lynn Rogers), a lumber company owner (Dale Dukes) and another member in the structural steel business (Finley Jones) -- is "a walking conflict of interest" when it comes to land use decisions.
A question on whether development in the county should be driven by the marketplace yielded a variety of answers. Phillips, who lives on the farm his family has owned for six generations, said he can't support any moves he feels will deny property owners the rights they are due.
"First and foremost, what has made this country great is the marketplace and what it can do for the country," Phillips said. He said he believes the council is "making great strides" to preserve open space, but said he won't support policies he feels violate the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Baunchalk said "I think you have to look at the area" the development is planned for. For example, Baunchalk said, developments in the area surrounding the Inland Bays "should not be market driven to the extent that it is."
"I'm not going to create some kind of regime that strips away private property rights," Phillips said.
Von Baumgart said unchecked development in Sussex County has taxed the area's electric supply and its roads, and stresses its natural resources. He said the county should be careful to retain its agricultural roots. "The best soils should be preserved for farmland," he said.
Cole arrived after the question was asked, nearly an hour after the forum started.
All four candidates more or less agreed on a definition of "sustainable development" -- a buzzword that seems to have replaced "smart growth" as a goal for county planning. Phillips stressed the importance of preserving farmland, of keeping affordable housing as a priority, and of "preserving to a degree the existing environmental factors."
Baunchalk and Cole both defined "sustainable development" as providing adequate roads, schools and sewer service to meet the needs of the growth areas.
Cole expressed disdain for what he termed "all this political correctness," referring to the efforts by developers to paint their projects as "smart growth" and other buzzwords.
Regardless of what it's called, Cole said, "what we're getting here in Sussex County, folks, is urban sprawl." He said after 14 years on the council, he has learned that "solutions" to problems encountered in the Sussex growth boom are unattainable, and that the reality is a series of "tradeoffs."
On the political football known as reassessment, Cole said "we do know there are problems -- inequities" -- because the county has not reassessed properties since 1974. But he said the consensus on the current council is that the county would have to raise taxes to pay for the reassesment. Cole said the state should fund 80 percent of any reassessment, since 80 percent of the county property tax bills actually goes to the school districts, not the county itself.
Baunchalk said the state "was ready" to fund reassessment during the Carper administration, but that all three county councils could not agree on it. Sussex backed the idea. Baunchalk called the county's failure to reassess properties "a suit ... just waiting to happen."
Phillips said he does not support reassessment. "It just gives the government a green light to raise your taxes," he said. "It's gonna hurt the old-time Sussex Countians," he said. Phillips added that the county's finances are fine without reassessment. "We have enough money already," he said.
Stark differences between the Fifth District candidates came to light when the subject turned to moratoriums on rezoning applications that would result in higher density. Baunchalk was one of eight coastal mayors who urged the County Council to enact such a moratorium last year. The Association of Coastal Towns asked that the moratorium be placed until the county's updated land use plan could be completed.
"They need to stop increasing the density," in the coastal area, Baunchalk said. She also repeated her oft-quoted stance on including golf courses in density calculations -- which allows developers to build more houses. "That is not, to me, open space," she said. "That, to me, is a commercial enterprise."
Phillips, on the other hand, strongly disagreed. "I don't support moratoriums," he said. "I think they do more harm than good." Phillips said moratoriums can "bottle up" market demand and can also cause a rush to develop a piece of land before a moratorium goes into effect.
The forum ended on a humorous note when most of the candidates avoided answering a question about the percentage of realtors, developers and lawyers among their campaign contributors. Von Baumgart said he has only collected about $100, all from private individuals -- "no corporations, no PACs, no special interest groups." Cole said he has raised "a few hundred dollars. I haven't spent a dime of it yet," he said.
Phillips joked he "would take money from anybody who wants to give it to me." His opponent assured the audience her campaign contributions come "from the people." To which Phillips quipped "Oh, my contributors are people, too."
After the forum concluded, Phillips leaned over to Baunchalk, seated next to him, and said, "Should we hug or shake hands?"
"I think we should shake hands," Baunchalk said.
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