GEORGETOWN — Enough is enough.
That was the common theme around The Circle on Tuesday, as residents with signs and calls for horn honks protested what they deem uncontrolled overdevelopment in Sussex County.
“We are protesting the overdevelopment in this county and (what) seems like the extreme pace that they are approving projects without having the infrastructure,” said Keith Steck, vice president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government. “As you can tell, most (protesters) live around here, and they are annoyed or really angry about the lack of roads to handle the development.
“There are all the other problems that go along with it, the feeling that the wetlands are just being decimated, … farms that are literally being clear-cut to put in houses,” he continued. “People are picking (up) on certain themes. But the reality, the common thread of all of this, is the failure to have a comprehensive, systemic, thorough set of guidelines and principles.”
The intent of the gathering spilled over into Tuesday’s Sussex County Council meeting. During public commentary, several speakers reiterated concern about traffic and uncontrolled growth and the negative impact it can have on lives of those who live here.
County Council Vice President John Rieley, who addressed media during the protest, said the county is “attempting to balance the rights of property owners and people that want to do what they will with their own land (and be) cognizant of the body of law that supports that, with the needs of the community and the rapid growth that we’ve seen. We get it! We see what they see. Right now, we are seeing a tremendous amount of growth, though. It is requiring some management.”
Councilman Rieley noted that the county is guided by its comprehensive plan.
“We have a 10-year comprehensive plan that we review periodically. It’s only 2 years old. It was done with a lot of public input, public hearings, and approved by the state. We are functioning under that plan, attempting to work to that plan as close as we can,” said the councilman, who referred to the planned land-use strategies process and its input from relevant state agencies.
“Every application goes through the PLUS process. It goes to Planning & Zoning, and they review it, to get input from the public, and then, it comes to council. We review it and get input from the public.”
Angola resident Eul Lee, one of the prime organizers of Tuesday’s protest, was overwhelmed by the turnout, estimated at about 100 participants.
“We thought this protest would be attended by about 20 people at the most,” she said. “We felt maybe this should be a test to see how much the public is willing to come out and say, ‘This is enough.’ We wanted to see how wide an area of support we are getting. I can’t believe how many people came out.”
Ms. Lee said she believes the effort is becoming more unified.
“Local groups come and go. Everybody says, ‘Oh, they are fighting, … not in my backyard.’ And they will disappear. This time, we wanted to see if that is the case or not. It is a countywide voice that we are raising,” she said.
On the issue of wetlands, Councilman Rieley offered assurance that they are off-limits to developers. And discussion about buffers adjacent to those protected areas was on council’s agenda Tuesday.
“I would anticipate it should be addressed in the course of our discussions about buffers. Let me state and say this: You can’t build on wetlands. That is a misnomer,” he said. “How far back you have that buffer, that is a question that might be up for discussion. But wetlands are out of play.”
Mr. Steck said people are generally not opposed to development. Their mission is smart, controlled development. He urged the county — both Planning & Zoning and County Council — to do its homework.
“Again, the people understand that development is going to happen. They are not against it. What they are against is indiscriminate approval of projects when (county leaders) don’t seem to be taking enough time to really look into this,” he said. “People are worried about sprawl. They moved here to get away from it, thinking this county had a good process for reviewing and considering things. And we’re finding out that they don’t, that there is a lot of rush to this. It’s like: Why the urgency?”
Councilman Rieley concurred that Sussex County has become a destination for various reasons.
“I think we are in the midst of what I am seeing is a trend, a mega-trend, out of the cities where people are leaving. I think part of it is due to COVID. Since they were quarantined, they had to do their work by computer from home, and they realized they can do it anywhere. So why not do it at the beach?” he said.
“So we have people leaving the cities because of a variety of reasons — crime, taxes, whatever — and deciding to come here to the beach to live and work. Couple that with the baby-boom generation, which is still in the midst of that retirement phase, (and) we are seeing a lot of people move to Sussex County.”
Mr. Steck said the county should institute a temporary moratorium on new development.
“Why isn’t there a moratorium on future growth until they can get a handle? Nobody is saying (to) stop construction of everything right this minute,” he said. “There are plenty of things that have already been approved. It will take them years to catch up. But just slow down and stop considering future projects for the next few years and get a handle on what they’ve got.”
In terms of traffic, the county has strengthened its relationship with the Delaware Department of Transportation, Councilman Rieley said. He referred to the Funding Accelerating Safety in Transportation Track Program, a partnership with DelDOT approved by council in December.
Under FAST Track, Sussex County will provide up to $5 million to accelerate projects included in DelDOT’s Capital Transportation Program. County funds will be earmarked for design work, right-of-way acquisition and construction costs. DelDOT, in turn, would fully administer any project. At the completion of a project, DelDOT will reimburse the county the full amount of funds provided.
“The state also has a plan for transportation,” Councilman Rieley said. “We just had DelDOT in here a few weeks ago to review their 10-year capital projects plan. We are monitoring that. We have improved our relationships with DelDOT quite a bit over the last couple of years since I have been here.”
Ms. Lee is hopeful the group effort can work with the county.
“Many people think it’s a lost case, but I don’t think so. I think we have hope. I think we can work together,” she said. “We’d like to have regular meetings. I believe that they want to listen, and they want to work with us for the best outcome for the county. They are responsible for the future of the county, and I think they care.”
Councilman Rieley agreed.
“Sussex is a very popular place, obviously. People are moving here in substantial numbers. We welcome the input from the people that are outside exercising their First Amendment rights. We welcome input from the public,” he said.
“That’s one reason we make three minutes available for anybody that wants to speak just before every single meeting, plus we have the public hearing process. We go out and meet groups on a pretty regular basis. We try to keep those lines of communication going, so that they feel they are being heard.”