When Joan Deaver takes her oath of office next Tuesday, Jan. 5, she will officially become the first woman ever to sit on the Sussex County Council, as well as a big change for a body she has frequently criticized.
Democrat Deaver, a former businesswoman and found of watchdog group Citizens for a Better Sussex (CBS), was the winner in Nov. 4’s elections for the District 3 seat on the council, defeating Republican Mark W. Baker in a narrow race – 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
Thus, the Rehoboth Beach-area resident and champion of more extensive representation for coastal Sussex will herself on Tuesday become the representative of the area from Milford to Rehoboth Beach and west nearly to Georgetown itself.
“I effectively lobbied for fairer representation of Eastern Sussex Countians on the county council,” she told the Coastal Point prior to the election.
CBS did get two bills passed in the state House that would have added at-large members to the Sussex County Council, rather than having all council members elected by voting district, as it is now, but their efforts were stalled in the state Senate.
With those efforts at a standstill, Deaver opted to run for her own seat on the council.
Two months after her election victory, Deaver is already working for her constituency-to-be, with a new Web site at http://councilwomandeaver.com, where she links to the Web site of the Center for the Inland Bays, to local environmental and development coverage and to a page where constituents can contact county council members.
The main thrust of the site is information, offering items that keep the public abreast of potential council action – from the council meeting broadcast to upcoming agenda items for her first meeting on the council and onward.
Among those items set for discussion on Jan. 5 is a site plan review for Manors at Abbotts Pond – 87 residential units slated for 97 acres in a state-designated Level 4 area (no state funding for improvements, due to the environmental sensitivity of the area).
Such projects were a major concern of CBS under Deaver’s leadership, and she notes on her Web site, “The Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission turned this down. The applicant appealed to the Sussex County Council for a reversal. On Jan. 6, the council will discuss this.”
Deaver also includes links to state agency comments on the project, going above and beyond what her predecessors did in terms of informing her constituency. She further includes information on projects now coming up for state review.
Those coming before the county council are likely able to expect a different approach to development from Deaver than from her predecessors, who were known for being development-friendly. Deaver is an open supporter of environmental causes and has urged caution where development and business have clashed with environmentalism. She has pushed for energy conservation and for the planned offshore wind farm off Rehoboth Beach.
As president of CBS, Deaver also testified on the Inland Bays Pollution Control Strategy and at numerous hearings regarding the permitting of a new coal-ash landfill at the Indian River Power Plant.
“Why would we be assuming this risk?” she asked back in July about a permit for a Phase II coal ash landfill at the plant, now owned by NRG. “A risk to our health, the economy and land values. If I were a lady, I wouldn’t say, ‘Get your ash out of here.’”
Concern about that project has likely only intensified since last week’s coal-ash spill in Tennessee, which officials are now saying has made water in nearby wells unsafe to drink.
Deaver also testified in opposition to the most recent update to the Sussex County Land-Use Plan, stating concerns that were mirrored by some state agencies.
“We’d have a million residential lots and 2.9 million more people,” she said at the time. “There would be nothing but houses as far as you can see, and this was done to protect huge landowners. We are feeling it everywhere, and we are sick of it. I am not saying it should be down-zoned, but I’m not willing to pay for it.”
Deaver said during her run for the council seat that her three main areas of interest are to a coordinate development with infrastructure; environmental and farmland preservation; and business development and jobs.
“We need better planning,” said Deaver. “An immediate issue is getting houses back off the road. They can’t widen it without taking people’s homes. And matching development with infrastructure — council doesn’t do that. We need roads, schools, police, fire, sewer, water — it’s very important.
“They should be matched with the houses,” she said. “There’s development already approved in areas where the state has said they’ll never put roads — since 2001, 45 percent of the current council’s approvals have been in Level 4 zones, where the state does not plan to build roads or schools. It’s not coordinated and it’s irresponsible.”
Then, Deaver said, there is the question of paying for it. She said having new homes is “really nice, but what do you do? — 41 percent of the budget is for public safety, and they didn’t collect enough. You have to collect money from the developers.”
Also, Deaver said it would be a priority to see to it that developers financially contribute to farmland preservation and do a better job environmentally.
As for business development and creating new high-paying jobs, Deaver said she would support the new economic development office in looking for high-paying jobs to come to the area, such as telecommunications businesses. “We can do a lot from Southern Delaware,” she added.
Deaver said she also plans to push hard to have a full University of Delaware campus come to the Georgetown area — something else that she says would being jobs and stability to the county.
She said she also feels much more cooperation is needed between the county and the towns.
“It’s a matter of county taking care of the people who lives here. Unless we start planning and get ordinances regarding infrastructure, our district is going to be city — and I don’t want that.”
Whether Deaver will be able to make a difference on such issues while serving on the council remains to be seen. She will be serving alongside four Republicans.
They include veteran Councilmen George Cole of Bethany Beach (a Republican who has often urged caution regarding development and may find Deaver a welcome second voice on such issues) and Vance Phillips of Laurel (a Republican who often votes in opposition to Cole).
There are also two Republican newcomers, District 1 Councilman Michael H. Vincent and District 2 Councilman Samuel R. Wilson Jr.
Vincent, a then-Seaford city councilman and firefighter, ran unopposed in the 2008 election for the District 1 seat, after having lost in his 2004 run against now-retired Democratic Councilman Dale Dukes.
Wilson, a Georgetown-area farmer and then-chairman of the 35th District Republican Committee, beat former Georgetown Mayor Mike Wyatt (a Democrat) and former Georgetown Mayor Robert Ricker (a Republican) in November’s elections.
Coastal Point Staff Reporter Monica Fleming contributed to this story.