County extends casino moratorium for now

While county staff continue work on a draft ordinance that would govern potential casino and racino projects in unincorporated areas of Sussex County, the county council this week voted to extend an existing moratorium on applications for such projects until such time as the final ordinance is adopted.

Council members voted 4-1 on Sept. 20 to extend the prohibition on casino projects, ahead of the Sept. 22 expiration of a six-month moratorium that had renewed an existing prohibition that had previously lapsed. Councilwoman Joan Deaver voted against the motion, saying she would have preferred to have the moratorium end at a specific date, to ensure there was pressure on the council to finish and adopt the regulatory ordinance.

“I don’t want to wait too long. The State might go back into session, and who knows what they would do?” she said. “I would rather see a direct time associated. This could go on for a long time, and they could convene while we’re waiting.”

“I hope we will have enough pressure on us to get the job done in a timely fashion,” said Councilman George Cole on Tuesday, voting in favor of the dateless moratorium along with the three other council members.

Redistricting process moves forward after public input phase

The council on Sept. 20 also heard the most recent report on the county’s redistricting effort, which is required as a result of population growth and shifts documented in the 2010 Census. County Attorney Everett Moore noted that the public had, for the first time, been invited to provide written comments on redistricting prior to formal introduction of the proposed district maps and related ordinances.

Those comments were subsequently used to make adjustments to the initial maps, he said, with emphasis on the growing populations of the areas of Sussex County east of Route 113. The results were posted to the County’s Web site, with the public permitted to comment there and by mail through Sept. 2 – a date that was extended to Sept. 6, due to Hurricane Irene.

Moore said the County had received five emails, but no mail, with comments about the proposed redistricting, the bulk of which objected to the makeup of District 5 (currently represented by Vance Phillips), which has seen significant change due to the growth of the beach-area population. One of the comments requested more “political consideration” for the beach areas.

Another email objected to the removal of Bridgeville from District 2 (currently represented by Sam Wilson) to District 1 (represented by Council President Michael Vincent). One set of comments objected to the council being in charge of redistricting, while another objected to the revised districts “giving the edge to the Democratic Party.”

Moore said he could have the ordinances related to the draft map done within two weeks, and given another three weeks to advertise the required public hearing, it could be scheduled before November.

Cole said he had concerns about how Ocean View and Millville were being handled in the redistricting, citing major expansion of their populations and boundaries since the last redistricting and questioning whether one or both of the towns were being split into two different council districts in the draft map.

“The state house and senate have already drafted theirs,” Moore noted. “We have to follow that to a certain extent, or we will create areas where there is not enough representation.”

As it stands, the draft maps result in a slightly larger number of residents in the 3rd District (currently represented by Joan Deaver), and District 1 (Vincent) has slightly less than required.

Catherine Ward, president of the League of Women Voters of Sussex County, noted that the group’s goal is to empower and educate citizens that they are an important part of the process and ensure that people within the communities feel empowered to speak for themselves through their councilperson.

“Look at the map,” she told the council on Tuesday. “It stays the same across the southern part of Delaware. I wonder how you can separate Bethany and South Bethany and those other resort areas and hope that those people are going to have important representation with their particular interests.

“I’d like you to consider … about making sure their interests are met,” Ward continued. “There is a varied population. You have other ways of doing that, other than separating the Quiet Resorts. I’d like you to take that under consideration as you proceed.”

The public will have a chance to continue to address their concerns and offer suggestions as the council proceeds to the public hearing phase of redistricting.

Concerns about state police staffing in Sussex continue

Deaver expressed concerns that were mirrored last week in Fenwick Island as that town’s police chief reported a sharp uptick in the amount of assistance his officers have provided to Delaware State Police this summer over last. She asked if the 11 troopers the county is missing on its allocation were coming anytime soon.

Outgoing County Administrator David Baker said that 174 troopers are currently assigned to Sussex County, though 183 are supposed to be allocated. The shortfall has been attributed largely to a loss of troopers from the state force overall, but the County had previously requested that its allocation be upped to help address perceived increases in crime.

Baker reported that the state troopers had received some 4,744 criminal complaints in July 2011 and had made 1,442 arrests, plus an additional 4,942 traffic arrests. He said he had called the DSP on Monday about the current status of the trooper shortage but hadn’t received a return call by Tuesday morning.

“At least one of their classes is supposed to graduate this month, and that should help bring the numbers up,” Baker said.

Phillips also asked about the figure of 511 felony arrests in Sussex that was on the DSP report to the County. “Is that just July?” he inquired.

“That is my understanding,” Baker said.

“That could fall into the category of non-violent crimes,” Phillips pondered, suggesting that perhaps some might fall under the category of crimes such as leased property of significant value that was not returned in time. “I can’t imagine 511 felony arrests in one month,” he said.

Baker said he would ask the DSP about that figure.

Clarksville-area parcel rezoned to B-1

The county council on Tuesday approved a zoning change for Dorothy Somerville, for 31,980 square feet of land southeast of Route 26 and west of Irons Lane, in an AR-1 Agricultural Residential zone, to B-1 Neighborhood Business.

Somerville said she had operated as an antique dealer at the site for 12 years, with other business and commercial uses in the vicinity, including an auto repair shop. But, she said, an eminent domain condemnation was expected to limit possible more extensive uses of the property in the future.

“I think it’s time to change the zoning,” she told the council on Sept. 20. “The State has taken 35 feet of my front lawn, up to my walk,” she added of the impending Route 26 improvement project, which will widen the road to three lanes from Clarksville to Bethany Beach.

“I live in the house, too. I don’t know what the future will be, but I think it’s time to change the zoning. … I haven’t thought of making a change, but I just don’t know if I can live in the house, because the road’s going to be right up to my door,” she added.

Council members were sympathetic.

“It’s a wise thing to do with a piece of property like this when DelDOT has taken away so much of the frontage,” said Deaver. Council members also noted that the zoning would be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood and trend of commercial zonings in that area. They voted unanimously to approve the rezoning.

County readies for next phase of work on foreclosed housing

Finally, the council also voted unanimously to approve revising memorandums-of-understanding (MOUs) for the second phase of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which has helped with rehabilitation and purchase of 28 foreclosed homes by new buyers in the last year. Six of those were handled through Habitat for Humanity and another two through the Milford Housing Association, and the new MOUs governing cooperating with those two groups require approval before Round 2 can begin.

County staffer Brandy Bennett noted that Sussex was the first of Delaware’s three counties to extend funds to would-be home owners through the program, putting owners in the homes much quicker than elsewhere in Delaware, where the counties directly purchased the homes and then marketed them to buyers. Instead, Sussex offered a kind of mortgage to the would-be owners to help them purchase properties in a list of targeted areas.

Moore noted that as houses are sold through the program, the money comes back in to be reused. He said other jurisdictions are now using the county’s model in their programs.

The council on Sept. 20 also made grants to:

• Autism Delaware for $1,000 to sponsor the Autism Gala & Auction, which supports education, public awareness, advocacy and support programs for people with autism and their families; and

• Polly Branch Civic Association, for $1,500, for after-school program expenses.