Conaway: Is Sussex planning government overreach or government excellence?


Joe Conaway is the president of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee.

On Sept. 21, Sussex County Council and its Planning & Zoning Commission met in a workshop session to discuss changes that might be considered for its zoning code and regulations. They met in their brand-new Emergency Operations Center at the Delaware Coastal Airport. What a facility! And I’m sure that it got plenty of workouts over that weekend.

The workshop was closed to public comment, but the public was there in large numbers anyway. We were all there to hear what changes may be proposed to our codes and regulations. Topics that were discussed included perimeter buffers, forest preservation, open space, some specific county code updates, interconnectivity and a number of housing possibilities, including accessory dwelling units, the use of single- and double-wides to fill the gap in workforce and affordable housing, and managed meadows. There were no hard suggestions made and no final decisions made. All this discussion was simply to get the discussion started. Most, if not all, of the topics will have to go through a number of public workshops and meetings, in which the entire population will have the opportunity to have its say. The Sussex Economic Development Action Committee congratulates the county for getting started with what should be a long process.

Many of our members were in attendance or tuned in via Zoom. SEDAC’s monthly meeting was held Sept. 22, so we were able to discuss the issues that were brought up in the county hearing. It is clear from the suggestion being made at the county meeting that any development that will come is going to cost more. I dislike quoting statistics, but I have seen numbers that place the cost of regulation on building construction at anywhere from $100,000 to $175,000 per lot. Guess who is going to pay that and guess what it does to the possibility of workforce housing? But that doesn’t seem to change the minds of the no-growth crowd. Not one suggestion that was discussed at the county meeting focused on cost explosions caused by additional county and state regulations. Now, let me say that there will still be government and nonprofit groups in the housing business, but their budgets will be limited, and the requirement of ownership will disqualify thousands of our people from these programs. We should support these programs, but we must create new programs so that our young people will have the same opportunities that we old people had when we looked for our first home.

We have talked to companies that want to come here, but there are no homes for those that would come with them. Many of these folks who now provide services east of U.S. 113 can’t afford to live where they work. If these regulations become law, any hope of having skilled or professional workers calling Sussex their home is over. And our young people will be leaving at greater rates than they are now.
I heard a great deal of talk about additional buffers. The first thing that one learns about buffers is that they cause “sprawl.” The more land we use for buffers, the less land remains for housing, which makes the cost of new homes rise.

A few years ago, I attended a program sponsored by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control that was all about buffers. The paid expert speaker provided information about buffers, from size to what one should do within the buffers to protect our streams and bays. At that time, the state and its bureaucrats were pushing major increases in the size of buffers. The expert began his presentation and immediately turned his attention to buffer sizes. His point was simply that it did not matter what size a buffer was (10 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet); it matters what you did in the buffer. The bureaucrats went into a complete state of panic, dragged their speaker out and had a very heated discussion in the back of the room. After about 15 minutes of extreme argument, the conference started again, with the speaker, not admitting to any error in his presentation, making some point about further discussion and moving quickly to his major point — what one must do in a buffer to make it work. Shortly after he finished his presentation, I left the conference, as the bureaucrats intended to obviously censor everything that would follow. The point from this fiasco that I will never forget and what continues to shape my opinion of buffer regulations is that best management practices always win over size in protecting the environment.

There are changes that we need to employ to make Sussex County an even greater place to live. But it’s not all on the county. The road system here has never stayed even with our needs. The first land use plan for Sussex County came from the state under Gov. Russell Peterson. Back then, in the late ’60s, the state called for Del. 1 from Five Points to Rehoboth Beach to all be zoned commercial, yet the state did not make any improvements to that stretch of road until the 1980s and then did them without any input from either the county or Rehoboth. The Georgetown bypass under construction now was planned to begin in the 1970s. I guess 50 years isn’t bad to wait.

Let me make this point: The state provided $4,144,387,287 to the Department of Transportation from 2011-21, yet only $782,910,850 of that money (18.89%) came to Sussex. But Sussex County is 48% of the landmass of Delaware; Kent and New Castle (the rest of the state) is 52%. Seems quite fair to me.

To address this situation, let’s try something that worked for the county in the past. Let’s appoint a committee of the major groups involved in this issue and see if we can come up with solutions that enable us to make workforce and affordable housing available throughout Sussex. Just maybe it will enable us to keep our young people here and provide skilled and professional workers homes here.

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