Delaware legislators will return to session on Tuesday, June 1, beginning a final push to pass bills prior to the June 30 end of the 2010 legislative session. A number of those bills could impact Sussex County, and Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin has continued to keep abreast of them and to inform Sussex County Council members about their progress.
On Tuesday, May 25, at the council’s weekly meeting, Godwin said a number of the bills he had been watching had been withdrawn or were inactive – in a turn of events he described as “good news.”
More good news for the county could come in the form of passage of House Bill 333, which would allow it to use the Justice of the Peace court – in addition to the Court of Chancery – to enforce requirements for connection to county sewer.
Godwin had previously noted that the legislation would likely save the county both time and money, as the JP Court docket allows for court dates to be assigned sooner and judgments to be rendered more quickly than through the Court of Chancery – the county’s only existing source of remedy.
HB 333 has already been passed by the House, and it has been released from its Senate committee, ready to go to the Senate floor for a vote.
“I’m pushing hard to get it on the ready list and voted on in the Senate when they come back next Tuesday,” Godwin said, adding that he was “fairly confident” it would become law.
The council had also supported the passage of House Bill 352, which deletes “antiquated code provisions” requiring churches and religious organizations to obtain a permit from a commission composed of the sheriff, County Council president and Clerk of the Peace of each county in order to conduct camp meetings and outdoor religious meetings in that county.
SB 352 had passed in both the House and Senate on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, May 26, Gov. Jack Markell signed it into law.
Godwin said Tuesday that he had also been keeping tabs on House Bill 194, which would amend the state’s gaming laws to grant any holder of a valid Delaware thoroughbred or harness racing license granted as of Sept. 1, 2008 the right to become a video lottery agent/casino if it otherwise meets the eligibility criteria for licensure.
HB 194, sponsored by House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) has been amended numerous times, including amendments that might have paved the way for casinos to be opened in suggested locations in or near Millsboro and at the Indian River Inlet. For that reason, the county council has been keeping a sharp eye on the legislation.
Godwin said on May 25 that HB 194 had been placed on the speaker’s table in the House – meaning it was inactive, at least for the moment. But Godwin cautioned that the House majority leader – Schwartzkopf himself – could reactivate it at will.
On Tuesday, Godwin said he had spoken with Schwartzkopf, concluding from the conversation that the fate of HB 194 could go either way.
“I don’t think that bill has a lot of energy behind it right now,” Godwin said, “but that could all change. There are five weeks of session left.”
Godwin also put the council’s attention to Senate Bill 265, which was introduced on May 11. The agricultural legislation is intended to prevent farmers going about their normal business from being subject to criminal complaints as a result of those actions.
Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) had sponsored the bill, Godwin said, after an incident in which a farmer unloading soybeans from a truck in Odessa was charged and fined $250 when a neighbor called the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) to complain about a large cloud of dust the unloading process had raised.
Godwin said the resulting legislation offered one small concern for the county, in that the agricultural work it prevents interference with could include commercial events and elements on farms that the county either does not allow or requires county approval for, such as commercial corn mazes, paintball operations and motocross.
The legislation contains wording that the agricultural processes not to be interfered with are “including but not limited to” such things as grain elevators, feed bins and suppliers. Due to the legislation not specifying that some farm-based activities were not being permitted by right, Godwin said, he had concerns the county would lose its ability to control previously limited farm-based activities.
“A year or two ago, there was a spirited discussion in the legislature about agri-tourism, and certain things were defined as allowed,” he pointed out, noting that – in the end – Sussex County had been exempted from that legislation, due to the council’s desire to make sure they had the opportunity to review agri-tourism activities before they were added to a farm.
“Could an ag operation be converted into something else?” Godwin posited, pointing to the potential for motocross tracks and paintball venues becoming part of normal ag operations. The county already issues conditional-use permits for the various corn mazes that operate on Sussex farms each fall, but on a case-by-case basis, after public hearings and through the county planning process.
Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee, Godwin said, was planning to recommend an amendment to SB 265 that would specify what ag operations are, so as to not permit “amusement parks, Ferris wheels – all kind of things – under the blanket of ag, that we would not support.”
“Are you saying we have to have a permit to have a maze in a cornfield?” Councilman Sam Wilson – himself a farmer – asked Godwin.
“If it’s set up as a business and not for agricultural purposes,” Godwin replied, “you have to have a permit.”
“We do issue permits for things that last a long time,” added Councilman George Cole. “These things can generate a lot of traffic and change the whole nature of an agricultural area. Do you think you should just be able to start a paintball operation?” he asked Wilson.
“That might be a little different from a corn maze,” Wilson countered.
“If you were opening it to the public for free, there’s a difference,” Cole said. He noted again, “We do accommodate them.”
“If I had a horse, and I charged you 50 cents to get on, I have to get a permit,” Wilson argued, making clear his disapproval of needing county permission for such ag-related offerings.
Godwin also noted on Tuesday that “u-pick” operations are already a permitted use in agricultural districts, so no conditional-use permits are required.
As part of the May 25 legislative update, Godwin said he also wanted to make the council aware of House Bill 30 – which, while not related directly to Sussex County, might have impacted the county if it had been adopted as originally drafted.
HB 30 creates a set of school impact fees, assessing a fee of 6 percent of construction cost on new homes as a revenue source for the school districts impacted by new construction. Godwin said the bill had originally been intended to apply statewide but was later amended to apply only to the Appoquinimink School District in New Castle County.
The State of Delaware is to collect the impact fees, Godwin noted.
“If this threatens Sussex County, I’ll make you aware of it immediately,” he assured the council.
Finally, Godwin noted a piece of draft legislation that had not yet been introduced but that he said he expected would be introduced after the new legislative session begins on June 1. The proposed bill would take the Recorder of Deeds and Registrar of Wills offices under state control.
“This is something that we will have to be very much concerned about,” Godwin said, promising to “work with the legislators to make sure our interests are represented properly.”
The concern with a possible state takeover of the two offices would come primarily due to their impact as a current “revenue enhancer” for the county, Godwin noted.
Also on May 26:
• County attorney Everett Moore reported that he and Godwin had met to discuss a staff request to change the county’s tax warrant date from April 30 to June 30, to better make the county’s property tax deadline line up with its budget cycle.
• County Administrator David Baker read a note from South Bethany Town Manager Melvin Cusick thanking Joe Hopple, educator for the county’s EMS system, for arranging CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training for town staff, in coordination with Brian Martin of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company.
• Councilwoman Joan Deaver requested a response from the council to a letter it received from state Rep. John Atkins in March. In the letter, Atkins inquired about a county policy that prohibits a county employee who retires with a pension from the county, and who then becomes an elected official for the county, from collecting both a county pension and pay as an elected official. Atkins said he felt the policy was too restrictive.
• The council reviewed the basics of capital project proposals under the 2011-fiscal-year budget recommendations. The draft budget is available on the county Web site at www.sussexcountyde.gov. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for next month.