DOVER — With the business in Delaware stabilizing in a new normal, legislators are reportedly drafting bills to expedite development in the First State.Rep. Bill Bush (D-Dover) told Dover business leaders last week that he was working on bills that will move the needle on the state permitting process and ideally land regional development projects as a result. Bush is the chair of the Economic Development Committee and also sits on the board of the Delaware Propensity Partnership, the state’s public-private economic development agency.“It’s been talked about for years, but it seems like stakeholders are really on board with this,” Bush told the Downtown Dover Partnership executive committee during its October meeting. “I’m looking forward to next year, and hopefully the governor will have it on his agenda for the State of the State [address], but we will see.”
[caption id="attachment_204737" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Construction workers lay the final beam of the future Marlette Funding headquarters in The Concord | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING[/caption]
Among those bills would be one that establishes a project concierge, or a point person to streamline communication between state agencies and project developers, Bush said. The hope is that this office would coordinate efforts among agencies and improve the permitting process for developers. At this time, it is unclear whether that office would fall under the governor’s office or the secretary of state’s office.Other legislation considered at this point includes removing the need for “duplicative permits” and expediting the permitting process. Bush pointed out that some of the act of “moving dirt” can be held up by paperwork from the Department of Transportation (DelDOT), Kent Conservation and other agencies.
[caption id="attachment_216977" align="alignleft" width="201"] Rep. Bill Bush (D-Dover)[/caption]
Lawmakers are also considering whether the Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) process needs to be revamped. 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. There is some discussion on whether the PLUS process needs to be moved further back in the development phase.“The promise of the PLUS process is good and bad, but sometimes it’s really pushing paper,” Bush said. “The engineering firms know what they’re doing, and that process can hold up big projects coming to the state and there’s got to be another way to expedite that.”These proposed measures sprung from 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. Gov. John Carney has already signed into law one measure that sprung from the report: the Site Readiness Fund.Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, a non-partisan, volunteer consortium of state CEOs that is spearheading the Ready in 6 initiative, told the Delaware Business Times that it’s critical to revisit the permitting process now.“It’s no longer a matter of competition, although that still is an issue. We’re looking at having an unprecedented amount of federal money at our disposal between [American Rescue Plan Act] and President Biden’s infrastructure bill,” Perkins said. “The permitting process needs to be efficient enough to draw those projects looking in, and it’s the critical piece to this.”In the last year, much of Carney’s focus has been responding to the pandemic and overseeing the economic recovery. Notably, he cut his Fiscal Year 2021 budget — including the Site Readiness Fund the first time — in anticipation of the financial fallout, but Delaware’s economy emerged relatively unscathed. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council predicts ending FY 2022 with a $444 million surplus, although concerns still loom regarding rising inflation and workforce shortages.“Gov. Carney already is a strong advocate, but we need to see whether he will put his thumb on the scale for this. One piece to this is legislative, but the other piece is administrative, and he has been an advocate so far,” Perkins said.On a local level, Dover Director of Planning and Inspections David Hugg said that Ready In 6 will lift up already successful processes in municipal government offices. He argued that Dover and other municipalities that he is aware of are rarely the issue when it comes to development. Instead, it’s having shovel-ready sites complete with infrastructure.For example, the Delmarva Corrugated Packagingplant went from an idea to construction within six months as the DelDOT approvals were in place and the zoning was compatible.“If an applicant is prepared, the process can be pretty quick and Dover has all the right people at the table,” Hugg told the DDP executive committee. “I would caution my good friends in the legislature to focus where the focus needs to be and not to beat up on municipalities who do, I think, a very good job now of expediting projects and working with the property owners and applicants."Editor's note: an earlier version of this article misidentified Bush as a Republican instead of a Democrat. We regret the error.