Planning meetings end, planning continues

Balancing Sussex County property owners’ rights with the state’s request to protect sensitive land will be one of the biggest challenges for the authors of this year’s land-use plan update.

This week, after they wrapped up a series of public hearings that took county officials across the county in the past month, that was the most definitive finding, Paul Driscoll, a Sussex comprehensive land use planning consultant said.

“It’s up to the county to find the middle ground there,” Driscoll said, adding that it is the consultant’s job only to present potential solutions. “The state’s further intention is to see that there are some regulations that implement safeguards to those natural features.”

State natural resources Secretary John Hughes visited council this month to essentially, albeit politely, order county action to protect thousands of acres of sensitive Sussex land. The 38,000 acres of unprotected land outlined in the state resource area maps include large forest blocks, wetlands and rare-species habitats, mostly on privately-owned land. The roughly 77,000 protected state resource areas include state- and federally-owned conservancies and preserved farmland.

Owners of property that had been marked sensitive in September’s updated resource area maps were contacted by mail by the state, and the concerned among them have bombarded county and state officials with questions recently. While some worry that further regulations to restrict development will have an adverse economic impact on their land, other property-rights advocates support the plan.

“We are, as farmers, willing to participate and save the good natural resources of the county,” said Ed Justice, president of the Delaware Farm Bureau. “Those are large parcels that still exist in our county, and they do have potential to be a good asset for our county.”

The updated plan will include sections on economic development and community design, among other topics, but the most controversial section will undoubtedly be its land-use element.

Growth has captured the attention of most residents in fast-growing Sussex and the document, and its supplemental ordinances, will serve as a guide for land-use decisions in the next five years. The updated land-use plan is due to the state for approval by this fall.

Driscoll said that he and his Pennsylvania-based Urban Research and Development Corp., which specializes in planning consultation, should have a rough draft prepared by March. Public meetings on both sides of the county and hearings in Georgetown will follow, Driscoll said, before county officials consider adopting the plan.

Although the first round of public participation has ended, county residents can still submit comments via the Internet at or by regular mail. Driscoll has continually assured that all comments will be considered while drafting the document. Many concerned locals — including elected town officials — voiced their opinions on topics ranging from emergency planning to economic development to land development and infrastructure issues at Thursday’s public meeting.

“Route 26 and Route 54 aren’t capable of handling the capacity when we are in summertime levels — which is the predominant hurricane season — so that needs to be addressed,” said Chris Clark, a Fenwick Island town councilman who is working with others to develop that town’s first comprehensive plan. “We need technology schools to help diversify our economy. We need to give tools like this to the young kids so they can stay in this area and have jobs that are not all related just to development.”

“As growth and development happens without concurrent infrastructure and improvements, we get … difficulties with transportation and just getting around in the summertime,” added Dan Costello, a Bethany Beach resident. “It’s less (about) density and more a congestion problem. Many of us attribute the congestion to a lack of planning with respect to infrastructure while development is taking place.”