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New bill looks to pare back PLUS process

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HB 420 would not require projects in the state’s level 1 and level 2 investment zones, not to go through the PLUS process. | DBT FILE PHOTO

DOVER — A new bill that would make the first stop for many developers and builders working on construction projects and new builds in Delaware optional has cleared the House of Representatives.

House Bill 420, sponsored by Rep. Bill Bush (D-Dover), sailed out of the house on May 19 with little discussion and no debate. The bill would make the Preliminary Land Use (PLUS) review optional for projects in select investment areas.

The PLUS process, or the state’s pre-application process for land use development, was established roughly 20 years ago as a method to increase coordination between state, county and municipal governments.  As it stands, PLUS is the first state board that reviews all development projects in the state before it is reviewed at a county or municipal level. 

Right now, land use change proposals are submitted to the Office of State Planning Coordination, and later discussed by most state agency experts about potential problems the project may face — as well as offering solutions. 

State agencies that participate include the Department of Transportation (DelDOT), Department of Natural Resources (DNREC), the Delaware State Housing Authority, the state Fire Marshal, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Department of Education, the Delaware Transit Corporation (DART) and more.

HB 420 would specifically make the PLUS process optional for projects located in the state’s investment level 1 or level 2, as outlined in the 2020 Strategies for State Planning and Spending. Level 1 includes more urban areas, or those that have established infrastructure and services in the area, like Dover, Wilmington and Seaford. Level 2 covers land near more urban areas but with newer infrastructure and has planned infrastructure investments in the future.

Earlier this week, Delaware Prosperity Partnership President and CEO told business leaders at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’ end of policy conference that the ease of the permitting process was something companies considered.

“Whether it’s going through DNREC or DelDOT, the process has to be customer oriented. In my opinion, it has to be understandable and consistent. If you tell someone it’s going to take six weeks, don’t take six years,” Foreman said during his keynote speech on June 7 . “[HB 420] has the potential to make [PLUS] customer focused.  Some big projects may decide to go through it anyway to hear the information upfront. Giving people that flexibility is important.”

Bush, who was unavailable for comment, had previously told the Downtown Dover Partnership that he was considering ways to expedite the process, noting that it can “hold up big projects coming to the state.”

HB 420 aims to address one of the core issues raised by the Ready in 6 initiative, which is devoted to improving permitting and fast-track project approval for employer prospects. The movement started in 2019 after the Delaware Business Roundtable and other key state leaders heard from site selectors that Delaware takes up to 24 months to issue permits. The industry gold-standard is six months.

A report issued later that year made many key suggestions in improving the permitting process, including creating a project concierge. Last July, Gov. John Carney signed in another Ready in 6 objective: the Site Readiness Fund.

HB 420 passed last month 31-2. The lone legislator to raise concerns about expediting the process during the time was Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark), who stressed the bill may close a part of the process the public may participate in.

“I worry that we are opening more doors to closing for windows to public view of development projects and favoring developers,” Kowalko said before he voted against the bill on May 19.

During this week’s end of policy conference, the Democratic leadership gave their support behind HB 420. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) said that the PLUS process worked for years, but found that many businesses were having more slowdowns than before.

“Taking as long as it can take to get a comment back is a little ridiculous. We’ve got to back off a little bit. I do support the purpose of the bill. Anything we can do to streamline government, make it faster, and get things done,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola (D-Pike Creek) took a more middle approach of the PLUS process, pointing that regulations exist to protect the people from harm in some cases. But still, the process could become faster.

“We don’t want to hurt public health and safety, but it’s not an excuse for ridiculous levels of regulation,” Sokola said. “So we have to be smart with permitting and regulations, so that we’re doing what needs to be done. And we’re making sure that there is that public health and safety component that addresses it.”

HB 420 is now assigned to the Senate Elections & Government Affairs Committee.

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