Lee: Is Sussex County a golden goose or a fake one?


Some Sussexonians think Sussex County has been laying golden eggs for the state and is being cooked. It was shocking to hear recently that some Delawareans think Sussex County has been laying fake golden eggs and could bankrupt the state one day. When asked for clarification, the answer was because of the tremendous amount of infrastructure funds needed to upgrade roads throughout the county and the potential damage by natural disasters.

So my journey began to acquire the views of Sussex County in the eyes of Delawareans outside of Sussex County.

First, on the Department of Transportation’s statewide map of 14,000 road segments that flood, the Sussex portion looks like a bunch of worms crawling everywhere. And Sussex is No. 3 among coastal counties that build more housing in vulnerable areas, while sunny-day flooding becomes more frequent. This puts more residents and properties in harm’s way if a bad storm or flooding event comes our way. Many Sussexonians will not bother to evacuate under a mandatory evacuation order because they won’t even reach the evacuation routes without getting stuck on flooded roads.

Second, Sussex County cannot rescue itself after a natural disaster. The state and the federal government have to rescue Sussex County.

Third, Sussex County has been approving developments for years in rural areas in Investment Tier 4 of the state’s spending strategies and policy, where the state discourages growth due to (1.) high infrastructure improvement costs and (2.) the need to preserve farmlands or environmentally critical natural areas. Sussex Planning & Zoning does not even discuss the investment level, as if it does not exist.

However, in Delaware Code’s Title 9, Chapter 69, Subchapter II (The Quality of Life Act of 1988), the latter part of Section 61(b) stipulates:

“If the planning agency makes recommendations that are in conflict with the information supplied by state and local agencies or local school districts, it must explain its reasons for doing so in writing.”

Due to the vast number, I only went back to 2018 and counted nearly 30 subdivisions with over 5,000 lots/units approved exclusively in Investment Tier 4. The exact numbers for a certain period can be debated because of multiple approval dates — for subdivision, preliminary site plan and final site plan, etc. — and age-old site plans to be sunsetted are dug up and extended. However, I have not seen any explanation of such approvals in writing.

The recently approved Grayrock Preserve subdivision, surrounded by the Redden State Forest on three sides, highlights this issue — in Level 4 and an area identified as “key wildlife habitat” in the Delaware Wildlife Action Plan. The site plan shows most of the old-growth forest will be removed. What’s worse? The Department of Agriculture said it would have to cut down 35 acres of Redden State Forest around Grayrock to provide a firebreak. Do I need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to get the P&Z’s explanation?

Reviewing this approval practice now is critical because over 10 subdivisions with about 2,500 units/lots have already gone through the Preliminary Land Use Service reviews but have not yet been approved by the county. One may have been decided by Planning & Zoning on Sept. 28; some have public hearings scheduled; and some are yet to be submitted.

My guess is that the developers and the P&Z Commission assume the Transportation Department will continue following the new developments and provide road improvements. Eventually, the rural areas will gradually be out of Investment Tier 4, and developments will indiscriminately spread everywhere.

So I suggest that the state decide to either get rid of investment level designations or stick to them.

I urge that Sussex County preserve farmlands and environmentally critical areas that can be our first line of protection when natural disasters strike. Suppose an application in Tier 4 must be — who knows why? — approved. In that case, the infrastructure in the surrounding region must be paid for and implemented to a prespecified level by the developer — before heavy logging and construction vehicles and equipment for the new development start treading the rural area roads.

Eul Lee


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