State, county team up to help businesses

Sussex County officials entered into an agreement last week to work with state agencies to expedite the process by which new businesses can come into the county and existing ones can expand their facilities.

Sussex County Council members voted 4-0 on Tuesday, July 28, to approve an economic development agreement between the county and the state that aims “to minimize the barriers for businesses that may be considering expansions in development, to make the approval process easier for businesses providing long-term jobs” and to let businesses garner input from officials at both levels of government early on in the permitting process, according to County Administrator David Baker.

The aim of the agreement, Baker said, is to better attract desired businesses to the state and to Sussex County, specifically, by enabling officials – and those desirable businesses – to strike while the iron is hot.

Under the agreement, Baker will serve as a liaison with state officials to “facilitate an efficient, expedient permit process for businesses identified as needing urgent approval by state and county, to try to encourage them to come to the state.”

Baker said the state’s economic development office had heard a number of complaints about how long it takes to get a proposed business through the state’s permitting processes.

What does the agreement mean? Simply put, Baker said, “They would expedite their process, and we would expedite ours” – if the business in question is deemed by both governments to be desirable and in need of an expedited process.

The Sussex County Council would still have to approve permitting phases such as changes of zoning and conditional uses. “It would just be quicker, so we could help with the economy,” said Baker.

The idea won over Council President Vance Phillips (R-5th).

“In the past, I’ve been very hesitant to agree with anything like this with the state,” Phillips noted. “It seems like they create a one-way channel to benefit themselves. As I read this, it seems like they’re trying to create a positive economic environment. It appears it doesn’t take away any of our accountability or oversight.”

Councilwoman Joan Deaver (D-3rd) said she also liked how the agreement gives the county a voice in deciding what businesses should get expedited treatment.

“In judging what is favorable and what’s not, and what kind of jobs they’re providing, it’s the leeway of the council to decide,” she noted, pointing out that a proposed restaurant would be quite different, in terms of providing jobs, from a proposed factory.

The council voted 4-0 to approve the agreement, with Councilman George Cole (R-4th) absent.

Baker also noted on Tuesday that the county has begun distributing applications for recovery zone facilities bonds to businesses, banks and area Chambers of Commerce. The program, which covers businesses in all areas of the county except those on state or federal property, allows businesses to apply for loans through the county that offer lower-cost funding for capital projects.

County to add 40 parking spaces in Georgetown

Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin on Tuesday garnered approval from the council for a proposal to add badly needed parking spaces for county use near the county administrative complex in downtown Georgetown.

Godwin said the plan will use property the county has owned for some time, a half-block away from The Circle, on Harris Alley and Cherry Lane, south of the County Administrative Offices building.

He noted that the county engineering department had looked at prior plans and determined the costs were prohibitive because the proposed designs required paving the entire property, which Godwin said would drive up the cost of stormwater management, or purchasing additional property.

In the new plan, 40 additional spaces would be provided for employee and visitor parking, with an adjacent area left open and unpaved, to naturally absorb stormwater.

The new project would be comparatively inexpensive, at $190,000 – about $5,100 per parking space. Both alternate proposals had come in around $11,000 per space and offered just 16 or 22 additional spaces for that cost.

Godwin noted that, thanks to the county’s past work on the parking lot issue, it should be able to get through permitting quickly, with both Conservation District and Georgetown town officials “very optimistic.”

With the 4-0 support of the council, Godwin received an endorsement for county staff to continue to work toward site-plan approvals and permits, and to eventually develop a bid package. He said construction on the project could begin as soon as this fall, and it could be complete by the end of the year.

The alternative plan came as welcome news for council members.

“One of the things I hear from people when they come to Georgetown to deal with the county, is finding a place to park [is a problem],” said Councilman Michael Vincent (R-1st).

Godwin noted that the county could add signs to the new lot designating it as reserved parking for county visitors.

“That’s really the mission here – is to provide some parking for the public,” he emphasized.

Baker said the county had already set aside funding for the parking project in its capital improvement budget, so it will require no additional financing.

The project also saves two existing homes on properties that had been targeted as possible sites for new parking. Original plans to demolish two Pine Street houses to make way for more parking are now on indefinite hold, said Godwin.

The county, which owns the houses, would consider turning over those structures, free of charge, to a historic group or other suitable organization willing to relocate the buildings at their cost, he said.

“This newest plan will save those structures for the time being, while giving us an immediate, reasonable solution to a very real and very noticeable problem,” Godwin said. “People hate searching for a parking spot, whether it’s at the mall, at the beach or at the seat of government. We hope this will make for a more pleasant experience when our constituents have business to conduct at the county offices.”

Housing program

gets OK from county

Brad Whaley of the county’s Community Development & Housing office brought to the council on Tuesday a memorandum of understanding between the county and Habitat for Humanity, regarding the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The county has received $2 million in grants to help reduce the number of foreclosed homes in Sussex, for which Habitat is one of the cooperating agencies.

Of that $2 million, $500,000 must be used to assist with housing for households making less than 50 percent of the area’s median income, and Habitat has agreed to work with the county on that population, Whaley said.

Under the program, the Community Development & Housing office will loan up to $125,000 to rehabilitate foreclosed housing in Seaford, Laurel, Greenwood and Georgetown, and Habitat will place qualifying families into those homes.

Upon the sale of the homes to the Habitat families, the loans will be converted to 0-percent mortgages, and Habitat will reimburse the county yearly from money received from the mortgage payments, which will then be used for related issues. Habitat can then apply to the county to retain that funding pool for additional programs, homes and families.

“How will that help with foreclosure?” asked Deaver.

Whaley clarified that the intention of the program was to allow more home buyers to enter into the market, thus allowing the program to help take foreclosed properties off the market and ensure they aren’t left to deteriorate and bring down housing values in their neighborhoods.

It is not, he said, designed to keep families in homes that are being foreclosed upon.

The council voted 4-0 to approve the memorandum of understanding.

Also on July 28, the council approved 4-0 a resolution declaring the establishment of the Woodlands of Millsboro Sanitary Sewer District. The district was approved in a June 25 referendum on a 40-1 vote. The project contains 57 homes near Millsboro.

County Finance Director Susan Webb noted that the project had been a substantial beneficiary of federal stimulus funding, having garnered 100 percent of the funding it was eligible for. That means the county will only have to finance $170,000 of the construction costs. Property owners in the district, as a result, will see the unusually low annual service charge of just $944 per year, plus their water usage costs.