Chamber hosts forum of council members

Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce members gathered on April 7 for eggs and sausage — with a side of politics.
Sussex County Council Members George Cole (District 4) and Vance Phillips (District 5) made the trip to Doyle’s Restaurant in Selbyville for a discussion on burning topics of the day.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Sussex County Council Members George Cole, left, and Vance Philips take questions from members of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Sussex County Council Members George Cole, left, and Vance Philips take questions from members of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

• Affordable housing
• At-large voting
• A center lane on Route 26

Following breakfast, Cole and Phillips took turns explaining their respective positions — and the underlying viewpoints that led them to those positions.

The bulk of the conversation centered on their philosophies regarding land use, and how it might relate to an affordably housing program.

Affordable housing

Phillips led off, noting the area’s unprecedented growth.

“I know some people would like to point fingers and make devils out of certain people for the growth, but at the same time I know, as a business organization, many of you make your livelihood off of this growth,” he said.

Aside from a healthy local economy, and Sussex Countians who might want to build new houses themselves, Phillips noted many soon-to-be retirees from the Richmond-to-Boston beltway.

“They’re going to be looking to get out of the city, move somewhere where they can enjoy their latter years,” he said. “And a lot of them have found Delmarva.”

Phillips noted Sussex County’s “accommodating tax structure,” and said homes in this area were still less expensive than elsewhere.

“People over there are selling $400,000 homes, coming here, buying a $250,000 home, and they’re sitting on an extra $150,000 and they haven’t even touched their retirement funds,” he said. “It’s a great bargain here in Sussex County.”

Phillips said he’d been engaged in a “demanding mental struggle” to find balance ever since he’d entered politics. By way of illustration, he contrasted two elements of what he considered major contributors to quality of life — economy (prosperity) and ecology (pleasing environment).

Phillips said he hoped to leave his children a better Sussex County — both ways. “Ecology isn’t the only thing that goes into quality of life,” he said.

All this being said, he outlined his realpolitik take on the affordable housing issue.

“You can have some very strong opinions on it, you can say, ‘We’ve got to have affordable housing,’ but when you get down to what it takes to create an affordable housing atmosphere, all of a sudden you say, ‘Well, maybe what we have isn’t so bad after all,’” Phillips stated.

He linked housing prices to supply and demand, and said demand was already greater than supply.

“Every time we increase the supply by approving a new development, there’s a group of folks out there that are outraged,” he said. “The box is full. So if the box is full and we’re going to limit supply, demand continues to go up and so goes prices.”

Phillips said he’d heard from a friend who bought rural land two years ago and recently sold for five times the original cost.

“God bless America, is all I can say — it’s a wonderful system,” Phillips stated. “Unfortunately, with all that appreciation in value, it’s put some people out of the market.

“We’ve got this great resort area, and all of you employ a lot of folks, probably,” he told the chamber members. “Where are they going to stay? Are they going to live in Gumboro and travel down Route 26 — that creeps along in the summertime — to get to work?

“Are they going to continue to rent, and put money into a property that they build absolutely no equity in,” he asked.

And all that being said, he gave his answer.

• Government involvement, but not government housing. Phillips said government housing demoralized people, and was often a frivolous waste of money. “I don’t think we should be putting taxpayers’ money into people’s housing in an overt way,” Phillips said.
• Phillips recommended certain criteria (also suggested by the moderately-priced housing committee) — participants should be residents of the county for a certain period of time, and there should be a retention period (can’t flip for profit).
• Developer subsidized. Incentives to include increased density — “which I know is a curse word to a lot of people,” he said — and an expedited approval process.
• He recommended setting it up as a “request for proposal” program.

“By doing it that way, we might be surprised,” he said. “There might be some developers out there that, instead of 15 percent affordable housing in their development, may propose 25 percent. Instead of $200,000 homes of an affordable class, if that’s the threshold, or $175,000, whatever that threshold is, they may be able to come up with a way that the affordable element may be $140,000 per dwelling unit.

“The motives of developers — a lot of them are out for the buck, but there are some that are looking for an opportunity to give back to the county,” Phillips said. “I know it as a fact.”

Cole then took the floor, and exception to many of his fellow Republican’s interpretations.

“I don’t buy into a lot of the reasons we see such high prices (in the housing market),” he said. “We have 6,000-plus lots and units already approved in this county — there’s no problem with supply. We have so much approved out there, we have an inventory that will last us for years to come.”

Cole offered his own realistic take on the future of affordable housing in this area.

• “I think the marketplace has gotten to the point where in coastal Sussex County, it isn’t feasible,” he said.
• Cole said he probably wouldn’t vote for a government-supported program.

“I also do not find acceptable — and I knew this would be the solution to affordable housing — to give developers more density,” he continued. “There’s got to be something more creative out there than that.

Cole pointed to the densities that were already permitted, even in the agricultural district. “At two units per acre, any farm can be chopped up — whether it’s in a sewer district, whether it’s in a development district or not,” he said. “That is high density, folks. We are losing parts of our rural areas here that make Sussex County what it is, and why people want to come here.

“I don’t buy a lot of these false assumptions that maybe Mr. Phillips does,” Cole said, referring to an earlier comment about cluster development or chopped-up countryside.

According to Cole, believers in the “smart growth” concepts outlined in the Gov. Ruth Ann Minner-endorsed “Better Models for Development in Delaware” were picking and choosing, taking only what they wanted from the model.

“It’s hard to be against smart growth,” Cole said. “If you’re against smart growth, what are you for, dumb growth? So a lot of times, I guess I’m for dumb growth.

“But when I look over to Maryland nowadays, when I see (former-Gov.) Parris Glendening, who was nationally recognized for promoting smart growth in his state, and he got all kinds of recognition, all this positive stuff — (Gov. Robert) Ehrlich comes in and all the counties, they’re scrapping smart growth as fast as they can,” Cole stated. “They’ve found it’s just a bunch of political correctness.

“It doesn’t work, they’ve created these development districts, it’s created nightmares,” he said. “I’ve come to this simple conclusion — If I’m going to have urban sprawl, I’ll take low-density urban sprawl as opposed to high-density urban sprawl, because I think low-density urban sprawl will be better for my quality of life.

“So, on affordable housing, I think we’ve reached the point where if the solution is higher density and that’s it, I’m going to be opposed to that, so it will be another 4-1 vote when it comes to affordable housing,” Cole concluded.

At-large voting

According to Phillips, “the countywide voting issue would probably not be an issue — had Jud Bennett gotten four more votes.” (Bennett lost to County Council Member Lynn Rogers last year, in a horse race for the District 3 seat.)

“Had Mr. Bennett won, you would not have the core group of folks over in the Lewes/Rehoboth area looking for another opportunity to — win the election, so to speak, or at least be able to prevail in future elections,” Phillips said.

“We would have had a very different climate in this county right now,” he suggested. “There would have been a lot of discussions about vision, specifics of current ordinances and current policy.”

“There have been some modest changes taking places, I believe, as a result of that election,” Phillips said. “A lot remains to be said about the ultimate outcome.”

While he suggested the push for change would likely continue next year (Phillips’ District 5 seat, and Cole’s District 4, come up for renewal in 2006), Phillips stated, “I don’t intend to change my positions, and I can pretty well guarantee you Mr. Cole is not going to change any of his positions.”

• He expected councilmanic voting would remain unchanged (district constituents vote only for a council member from that district).

• He agreed with recent comments from Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th district) to the effect that a bill supporting (two) additional at-large council seats stood a snowball’s chance.
• In contrast, Phillips applauded Hocker’s (draft) bill seeking two additional (geographic, not at-large) council seats following the 2010 U.S. Census.

“I think Rep. Hocker knows you’re wasting time, you’re wasting energy, you’re wasting political capital to put something in bill form in the General Assembly only to have it shot down in committee or have it languish on the floor of your respective chamber,” Phillips said. He expected a move to at least seven — and potentially, nine — seats by 2012.

Phillips also referred to a side issue, which he’d thrown out at a recent Citizens for a Better Sussex (CBS) meeting — the possibility of a Sussex County Executive position.

He said one individual, elected countywide, could “sends a pretty strong signal about how everybody would like to see the county move.”

However, he also noted the legal troubles surrounding former-candidate for New Castle County Executive Sherry Freebery. (Former-Executive Tom Gordon’s would-be successor, Freebery’s Democratic primary campaign disintegrated amidst various indictments.)

“I’m not sure if transferring that model down here is all that good an idea,” Phillips said.

Cole seconded that, but for a more specific reason.

“County executive — that’s kind of like a governor,” he said. “The county executive in New Castle County has veto power.

“So the county council adopts — even the land use issues, approves development, the county executive can veto it,” Cole said. “You want to talk about dragging things out.”

• He did throw support toward at-large councilmanic voting — for either two additional seats or for the five that currently exist. He expected at-large seats would add to the debate.

Historical side note — Cole’s father, Charles Cole, was among the first Sussex County Council members elected from a geographical district. Prior to 1970, Levy Court members ran, and were elected, at-large.

The first three councilmanic districts came on line in 1972, the other two in 1974. Charles Cole won election to the then-District 5 seat at that time.

• Cole said there was a “dire need” for additional council seats.

“The last election told me something — and not that if Jud Bennett had been elected we wouldn’t have this issue,” he said. An expanded county council was part of Bennett’s platform, Cole explained.

However, even if council grows, he said there would still be problems as long as council members considered only their own districts, to the detriment of the county as a whole.

“We need people on the county council who have vision,” he said. “Right now, whatever I’m telling you here in Selbyville, if I was at another meeting up in Milford I ought to be able to say the same thing, and I ought to be held accountable for it.”

Cole said council’s decisions on land use affected coastal Sussex, but the western county, too. “Those people ought to have a chance to get at me at the ballot box if they don’t like the way I vote, because county council can do a lot to destroy your neighborhood or your community,” he said.

Another problem, according to Cole, was the way the council members acted as representatives rather than as a council.

“Gerald’s (Hocker’s) job is being a representative,” he said. “We’re a council type of government, which is like a town council. Our charge is taking care of the county, not our little districts.

“I think if we have five districts or seven districts, they’re still all acting as representatives and still confused and thinking they have to get high density in Bethany Beach because some contractor in Laurel is building some houses over there, and he’s looking out for his constituents but ruining our quality of life,” Cole said.

Going back to the election, he said Rogers’ near loss, and long-time Council Member Dale Duke’s modest victory, suggested quality of life issues were superseding economics.

“The three Democrats (Dukes, Rogers, Council Member Finley Jones) kept saying, ‘Look what we’ve done for you. We’ve brought all this growth, we’ve brought all this development, the money’s good, the pots are full,’ Cole said. “Well, I think the voters are saying, ‘We don’t have a problem with taxes in Sussex County — we’ve got the lowest taxes. Taxes aren’t an issue.’ What’s an issue is the quality of life.

“We’re sitting in traffic, the beaches — my God, trying to get to the beaches anymore, I feel sorry for a young family in the western part of Sussex County that might want to do a day trip,” he said. “If they don’t get off at daybreak and get to a state park, they’ll never get anywhere.

“The towns are getting more restrictive, the parks are all full,” Cole said. “We’re not doing them any favors with all this growth. I think if we even cut the growth back substantially, we would still have a tremendous economy in Sussex County. I don’t think we need to go to these excessive lengths.”

Cole noted a recent victory at the council, when Rogers and Jones joined him in voting against a change of zone from agricultural-residential (AR) land to high density residential (HR) for five acres near Rehoboth.

The developers had offered various self-restrictions — the plan presented was for 30 townhouses on five acres, amid developments of similar density. However, as Cole vigorously pointed out, such conditions could not run with the land — if the developers sold, the new owners would have carte blanche HR.

Also, he suggested the county engineering department had been advised to grant sewer capacity commensurate with zoning.

Cole characterized Dukes and Phillips’ votes to approve the project as unresponsive. “They ignored, and they’re still ignoring, and that’s the root of our problem,” he said. “We don’t have that capacity long term.

“Sure, we have it today, but somebody’s going to pay way down the road, and maybe not way down the road, as fast as things are going,” he elaborated. “Maybe in the next 10 years, you’re going to see, all of a sudden, we’re backed up against the wall.”

According to Cole, the local South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility (SCRWWF) had been designed with two units to the acre in mind, in the rural areas.

“Well, Millville just swallowed up a lot of (rural) acreage and Millville zoning is now calling, in some places, for six and eight units to the acre,” Cole said.

In addition, the county had agreed to tie Selbyville into the SCRWWF, adding a couple million gallons a day to the ocean outfall.

“We’ve got problems,” he said. “The outfall system only handles 20-some million gallons and originally, Selbyville was not part of our outfall system.

“When you get all these requests, you’re going to be looking down the road, there’s going to be some developers going to come and want to develop their land, and there’s going to be problems of sewer capacity,” Cole said.

Route 26 center lane

Phillips said he hadn’t been watching the Mainline SR 26 project as closely as Cole probably had — “In all honesty, it’s not in my district,” he said.

However, he did say he’d spoken with Delaware Department of Transportation’s (DelDOT’s) Tom Banez, the project manager.

“Unless there is an organized, concerted effort in opposition, (Banez) was very sure the third lane, which I believe is the crux of this project, is going to occur,” Phillips said. “That’s going to mean cutting into some people’s front yards, it’s going to mean addressing historic structures along the line, but I think all of us know that Route 26 and the acceptability of that road is critical if we’re going to continue to function in that part of the county.”

He recognized the chamber, and Hocker especially, for keeping the project on DelDOT’s radar screen.

Cole noted roads as within the state’s demesne. “We’re not involved too much with Route 26 at the county level,” he said. “We’re just kind of watching what’s going on.”

He gave the center lane an endorsement — “The third turning lane, in my mind, was so obvious — from day one,” he said. “When they finally put one in at Bethany Beach, it made sense there, and why we had to go through all these years of study and all this other stuff just to figure out it would work on the other side doesn’t make sense to me.”

However, Cole threw a caveat over that endorsement — “Where it’s feasible, do it — if it’s not feasible, don’t do it,” he said.

After a few questions for clarification the meeting broke, with Cole joking that he and Phillips should take their show on the road.

In fact, the two Republicans are slated to offer forum discussion again this month, before the Southeastern Sussex Democratic Club (April 19).