County officials discuss impacts of potential state legislation

At the Sussex County Council’s regular meeting on June 14, County Administrator Todd Lawson updated the council on legislative happenings he said might impact the County.

House Bill 396, or the Bring New Jobs to Delaware Act, would impacts all three counties, said Lawson, by allowing each county to enact an expedited review process for land-use projects.

It applies to new office, manufacturing and industrial uses, and excludes new residential projects and commercial/retail projects.

Lawson said the bill would call for a quicker review process for both the County’s review process and the state’s process — equating to a nine-month total timeframe.

As it reads, the “County may charge a one-time expedited review process fee of up to $20,000 in addition to its other plan review charges, of which up to $5,000 may be given to state agencies to defray their costs.”

“We don’t have a backlog currently. We’re in pretty good in our standard review,” said Lawson. “We don’t have a multiyear backlog.”

Lawson said he would keep the council apprised of the bill’s progress.

State Rep. Paul Baumbach has approached the State’s three counties to discuss possible legislation related to the reassessment of mobile homes every five years.

“Rep. Baumbach is concerned about the counties following current state code as it relates to the reassessment of mobile homes,” explained Lawson. “The current state code … requires mobile homes to be reassessed every five years.”

Lawson said that, while New Castle County does perform reassessments, they do not do so as the code is currently written.

“I do believe he has intentions to introduce very soon,” Lawson added of the related legislation.

Sussex County is unique, said Lawson, in that it has 25,000 mobile homes.

“If we were mandated to do this, how would we possibly go out and visit 25,000 in a certain period of time?” asked Lawson. “It would be a herculean effort.”

He also called attention to the fact that the bill calls for reassessment for only one specific class of homes.

Chris Keeler, director of assessment, told the council the County treats mobile homes the same as it does every other class of home. He said the average assessment for a mobile home is approximately $9,250, which equates annual tax bill of about $400, of which the schools portion is $360, with $40 going to the County.

Lawson said both Sussex and Kent county officials raised concerns related to the draft legislation during their initial conference call with Baumbach and officials from each of the state’s three counties.

“I don’t know what the purpose is. We already tax the mobile home unit itself…” said Councilwoman Joan Deaver. “We already have a problem with affordable housing in this county.”

Deaver asked what the impetus for the potential draft legislation was. Lawson said Baumbach would have to respond, but that he believes it boils down to the idea that the state law should be followed as it was written.

He added that no fiscal note was attached, and if it were to move forward, the County would have to discuss the expense that would be incurred to take on the reassessment efforts.

Councilman Rob Arlett said he would think that the council would never agree to solely paying for the reassessment, as the State receives 86 percent of the proceeds.

Arlett also pointed out that the mobile homes would be getting reassessed; however, the land the homes sit on would not.

Signage moratorium extended to Aug. 15

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the council voted 4-0 to extend its current signage moratorium, which was set to expire June 15.

Originally passed on Sept. 15, 2015, the ordinance states that the Sussex County Council “views the placement of off-premise signs as an important public-safety issue” and believes that “the recent proliferation of off-premise signs has a detrimental effect on the safety and welfare of the citizens of Sussex County.”

The moratorium directs the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Office to decline applications for special-use exceptions for off-premise signs from the date of adoption to Aug. 15. It also allowed for the moratorium to be “extended, modified or terminated at any time by a majority vote” of the council. This is the second time the moratorium has been extended.

“As it stands right now, that would give us six meetings scheduled currently for this county council,” said Lawson of the Aug. 15 date.

Arlett requested that the item be placed on each week’s agenda, to ensure the council can “knock it out.”

“We don’t want to hold businesses up… If we’re going to do it, I would hope we would do it right the first time,” added Council President Michael Vincent.

The County had originally planned to continue its sign ordinance discussions on Tuesday; however, Councilman George Cole was unexpectedly absent. Therefore, the council requested to defer discussions.

“I have a big problem with him not being here, since he asked for this,” said Deaver.

Arlett said waiting out of respect for their fellow council member would be appropriate and apologized to those in attendance who were there for the sign discussions.

League of Women Voters gives annual report

B.R. Breen, a member of Observer Corps of the League of Women Voters of Sussex County, presented the group’s annual report to the council.

“The annual report to the council is developed by compiling the major issues and concerns noted during the past year as viewed by Observers and as they relate to positions of the League of Women Voters,” said Breen, adding that Observers have been able to attend 100 percent of council meetings in the past year.

In discussing planning, the report stated a need for an improved transportation system, noting the county is at a critical point due to rapid development.

“We note that the process for approving time extensions for expiring land-use applications was changed to allow for short term, case-by-case approvals, as opposed to blanket approvals, which had been used in the past,” added Breen. “Under this new approval process, a July 1, 2016, deadline was imposed, at which time applicants would need to meet specific criteria related to completion of the projects.

“We urge vigilance of the Council and Planning & Zoning Commission to ensure that applicants meet all stated criteria.”

Concerns were also raised related to land-use matters and the amount of information provided for projects under consideration.

“It is difficult for the public to ascertain the nature of the project unless additional descriptive detail is provided.”

The report also called for the council to adhere to its published agendas, as there were meetings in the last year during which lengthy executive sessions caused attendees to wait an extended period of time for any additional council action.

“We feel that this type of scheduling is unfair to the public and does not conform to the spirit of open government.”

The report praised County staff for their “professionalism in handling the duties of their positions.”

Breen said the Observer Corps would be continuing its activities this year. “We share with you the goal of ensuring good government for the citizens of Sussex County.”

The Sussex County Council will meet on Tuesday, June 21, at 10 a.m., at 1 The Circle in Georgetown.