Local Democrats question county reps


Two Republicans walked into a Democratic club meeting — and responded to some polite questioning.

Sussex County Council Members George Cole (District 4) and Vance Phillips (District 5) came to the Cottage Café on April 19, at the formal invitation of the Southeastern Sussex County Democratic Club.

While Phillips and Cole share a common GOP affiliation, their political philosophies stand opposed on, not all, but many issues.

To judge from crowd response, Cole had more of a following in the crowd, and Kay Ryan, club president, chastised him for trying to win cross-party votes for next year (both council members are up for reelection in 2006).

Phillips’ responses, in contrast, generated grumbling and tsking, and more than once, vocal disagreement. At one point, he cut short his comment to ask that club members in the back row, engaged in sideline riposte, please excuse him for interrupting.

However, even Cole was repeatedly called to task for rambling non-answers.

Ryan made clear at the outset that the Democratic club’s invitation was “in no way an endorsement of either candidate.” Rather, she said she hoped Cole and Phillips could shed some light on what she termed Sussex County’s “arcane council processes.”

Richard Legatski, club vice-president, added, “We’re here to learn more about how the county operates, so in the future, if we want to complain about development, we’ll know how to do it.”

Legatski sent both council members a short list of topics the club hoped to hear addressed, followed by a longer list they hadn’t prepared for.

In brief, the club asked prearranged questions for opinions on (1) proposals to change county voting — additional, or all, seats elected at-large, (2) whether the pace of development is outpacing infrastructure, (3) whether Sussex County and state agencies should improve land use planning coordination, implementation and enforcement and (4) a proposal to give the state veto power over the county, regarding land use decisions that conflicted with state planning.

Phillips spoke first, reiterating the property rights plank of his platform.

“Many of you in this room, I’m sure, have 401(k)s and pension plans — what if somebody said, ‘Well, for the betterment of all, why don’t we just take 20 percent of your retirement fund and put it into this public use,” Phillips asked. “The rural property owners felt the erosion of their equity, through regulation, was in essence the same thing.

“Now, before Joan Deaver jumps up and says, ‘What about my property rights as a homeowner,’ I will preempt her comment by saying, of course, we all have property rights, and we have to respect community standards when we approve development,” Phillips stated. (Deaver, an activist with various local political action committees, most recently Citizens for a Better Sussex, was sitting in the second row.)

However, he reiterated his stance that growth fueled economics, and a prosperous economy was good news for any community.

Cole launched right into the questions, although he came back around to some biographical information (he noted his family’s moves back and forth across the county, between Rehoboth Beach and Seaford, and his father’s role in county governance).

He described the district as it had existed when his father held the county council seat before him — it stretched from Fenwick Island to Lewes in those days, according to Cole.

“There were very few people who lived here year round, and most of those were second homes,” he pointed out. He suggested the long-time residents should receive some sort of compensation for putting up with the increasing growth — perhaps some form of “homesteading” tax break.

At-large voting

Phillips again referred to Deaver, as one who’d led the call for countywide voting in councilmanic districts. “Unfortunately, the sentiment is — if you can’t beat the system, then change the system in a manner that maybe you can beat it,” he said. “That really is un-American, in my opinion. The folks that supported Jud Bennett — God bless them,” he said, “they gave everything and they came up three votes short — but the system does work.”

Later in the evening, Phillips said he hadn’t called countywide voting un-American. Rather, he said he would work with whatever system the Delaware General Assembly deemed most appropriate — if the state legislature determined he should run countywide, he said he would do so without objection.

Despite repeated requests for an opinion, Phillip said he really didn’t have one on countywide voting.

Cole offered support for the idea. Regarding the issues associated with the area’s rapid development, he asked, “How do we address all this, and remain accountable to the voters?

“If you run countywide, you have a vision — you have to have a vision,” he said. The message should be the same, wherever he presented it, Cole said.

He reiterated his position that county council should look out for the interests of the county as a whole, not the interests of any particular constituency.

“I think Sen. Simpson (F. Gary Simpson, 18th district) has a plan of adding two at-large, Gerald Hocker has introduced something where they add two additional districts — I still don’t think that’s the answer,” Cole said. “I think somebody has to run countywide, so they can run with a vision, even if that’s only two.”

Infrastructure

“The only thing Sussex County offers, as far as infrastructure, is sewer,” Cole noted. He said the county did have a few water districts, but very few.

“So, all we have to offer a developer is sewer service, and we’re very liberal with it,” he said. “We’ve actually done a very good job with sewer — we’ve got it all around the Inland Bays and the coastal areas.

“The problem is, it’s a throttle for development,” Cole said.

Phillips noted hundreds of millions of dollars in the pipeline for road improvements (and the Indian River Inlet bridge). He admitted it would take a few years, but expected major improvements.

Regarding sewer and water, Phillips defended the county’s job of following engineering department recommendations and planning for the future.

As far as schools, he said the eastern side of the county was receiving more benefit from growth than western county schools, because retirees were paying in taxes without bringing children into the system.

He said constituents on the western side were pushing for a readjustment of the equalization formula (richer districts support districts that are less well off.

County/state planning

Phillips said information from various state agencies was sometimes good, sometimes not so good. “The state’s had the ability to have two ex-officio members on the planning and zoning (P&Z) commission for many years — but they never showed up,” Phillips said. “They were non-voting members, but they could have sat in on the P&Z hearings, added comments, participated, but the state did not send anybody down to fill those positions,” he said.

Cole noted problems within county government — a reluctance to bring staffing up to necessary levels, and a lack of continuing education for P&Z members. He said the county basically handed them a code book and expected them to make decisions by the next week. In addition, Cole said the appointment process was flawed — politically manipulated.

“If you’ve got a problem with development in Sussex County, the Democrats have run this county for close to 40 years,” Cole said. “You need to bring them over, and you need to read them the riot act.”

He also criticized local agencies, as much as the state. “We never get any comments from our school districts, and I think that’s irresponsible,” Cole said. “The developer comes in says, ‘This development’s nothing but a bunch of second homes and retirees — no kids,’ and yet, Lord Baltimore is bursting at the seams.

“For the life of me, I don’t know how you all are having so many kids,” he quipped (many of the residents in attendance were fully gray-haired).

Cole also said the county received only generic comments from other local and state agencies.

State veto power of county land use

Phillips referred back to his remarks on the state’s non-participation at the P&Z. “If the state is neglecting that responsibility, why are we going to hand over authority for land use in Sussex County to unnamed bureaucrats in Dover,” he asked.

“You can’t vote out bureaucrats in Dover if you’re not happy with their decisions,” he said. “Some say you can’t vote out a county council member either, but I beg to differ.”

Cole said the state had taken control of roads, drainage, schools and prisons roughly 50 years ago, but had become disconnected from county operations over the years.

Now, he said they were overwhelmed and was entirely incapable of keeping pace with county council’s land use approvals.

Following the prepared question segment, Ryan asked a series of questions prepared within the club. They were at times technical, and at times overtly accusatory — “Why does the council not take into account the cumulative impact of development proposals,” for instance.

• Cole and Phillips agreed staff could provide them background info on land use applications, a week or two ahead of time, if they asked for it.
• DelDOT and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) comments were highlighted, they agreed. Phillips said developers addressed those concerns and tailored their presentations before council to reflect the changes. Cole said they didn’t convey much information.
• Did staff members comment on those agency concerns? Cole — no, and as stated, the county should hire professionals who could comment. Phillips — no, he relied on P&Z’s review and interpretation of county code.
• Was there a “gag rule” leading up to council’s final decision on an application? Phillips — no, but he wouldn’t hang up on callers, for instance, without giving them a minute, then reminding them that the public record was closed. Cole — no.
• What weight does council give “Strategies 4” designation (lowest priority, state spending for infrastructure for development)? Cole — until the county reduces allowable density in the agricultural-residential (AR) districts, council ignores those recommendations. Phillips — there are ag districts created through Farmland Preservation, but otherwise farmers’ equity must be protected.
• DNREC’s 100-foot buffer around wetlands. Phillips — that’s excessive. Cole — supported it years ago.
• Developments already approved, infrastructure. Cole — council has to learn to say no. Phillips — DelDOT did nothing despite advanced warnings, but is responding now.
• Density — gross acreage, or net acreage after wetlands and roads, taken out? Phillips — defended clustering. Cole — residential planned community (RPC) overlays are “a game they play” to fit more, smaller lots.
• Sprawl due to on-site treatment systems. Cole — if it meets DNREC regs, they’ll get approval. Phillips — he noted “a drumbeat to deny proper density where infrastructure exists.”
• And finally, affordable housing with the county budget surplus? No, and no.