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VIEWPOINT: Government overreach or government excellence?

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Last month, the Sussex County Council and its Planning and Zoning Commission met in a workshop session to discuss changes that might be considered for its zoning code and regulations.

The workshop was closed to public comment, but the public was there in large numbers anyway to listen to discussions on 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, but it’s the start of what should be a long process.

It is clear from the suggestion being made at the county meeting that any development that will occur now is going to cost more. I dislike quoting statistics, but I have seen numbers that place the cost of regulation on building 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. 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 are concerned that there are no homes for potential employees. Many workers east of U.S. Route 113 can’t afford to live where they work. If these regulations become law, any hope of having skilled or professional workers call 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 development 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 Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control that was all about buffers. The expert speaker provided information about buffers from suggested size to what one should do within the buffers to protect our streams and bays – and 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, etc. – 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 of 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 make to make Sussex County an even better place to live. But it’s not all on the county.

The road system here has never stayed current with our needs. The first land use plan for Sussex County came from the state under Gov. Russell Peterson. Back in the late ‘60s, the state called for Route 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 city. Similarly, the Georgetown bypass under construction now was planned to begin in the 1970s. I guess 50 years isn’t bad to wait.

The state provided more than $4.1 billion to the Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2021, yet only $782.9 million of that money (18.89%) came to Sussex County despite constituting 48% of the landmass of Delaware. Doesn’t seem 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 retain our young people and provide skilled and professional workers a home here.

Joe Conaway is a former Sussex County administrator and the chair of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC).


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