County officials will continue their tour throughout Sussex with a stop Tuesday at Selbyville Fire Hall for a 6 p.m. meeting to discuss future county growth and the pending comprehensive plan update. The state-mandated plan serves as a guiding document for county land-use decisions.
Growth has reached almost every area of the county in recent years and is now likely the most touchy and volatile subject surrounding Sussex government. The five public meetings — one in each council district — serve as open forums for public input as the update is drafted.
Officials have noted that all public input gathered will be considered when drafting an updated document later this year.
“The new plan will simply be the plan we’ve been using with updates,” Hal Godwin, assistant to the county administrator, said at a Monday comprehensive plan meeting in Greenwood. “The updates will partially come from things you tell us are important to you.”
County consultants from Urban Research and Development Corporation — a Pennsylvania-based company specializing in planning consultation — hope to submit a first draft to the county by the end of March. Public hearings are expected to commence in July before the county submits the project to the state this fall. As a part of the contract, the county’s planning consultant will help council draft ordinances shortly after the plan’s approval to support the plan. Major changes to curtail development are not expected by council’s majority.
Through meetings with the public and with local non-profit organizations, county consultants are currently gathering information to gauge public opinion.
“We’re in listening mode. We’re here to frame the issues,” Paul Driscoll, county consultant, said at this week’s Greenwood meeting. “Our job tonight is not to make recommendations but rather to listen. The purpose of all this is to get a grasp of existing conditions and a real sample of the variety of viewpoints.”
Driscoll called Sussex County’s growth pattern “extremely heavy and fast growing,” and noted that strictly summer residents can add, “by some accounts,” 60,000 seasonal residents to the county. At Greenwood’s meeting, he discussed the impacts of that growth on the “quality of life” in the county.
“That’s what this whole comprehensive plan is all about,” Driscoll said. “The starting point is to say to you, ‘What do you see as what you would like to change or not change in your county over the next 10, 15 years.’”
Among other topics, officials at the public meetings have discussed and plan to discuss ways to preserve more farmland in the county, protect the natural environment, pay for future infrastructure needs and build more affordable housing to help support a middle-class workforce.
Preserving open space and protecting the natural environment have especially been touchy subjects in the past.
George Cole (R-4th), who for months has asserted that nothing substantial will come from this year’s update, has stressed the need for more stringent regulations on the county’s environmentally sensitive development area, which recently has been the focus of massive development. More than 1,000 homes were approved for land in the overlay zone abutting the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge and pristine Sussex County wetlands. (And it all comes at a time when DNREC is attempting, with difficulty, to approve a far-reaching inland bays clean-up regulation.)
Despite anti-development rhetoric and a call for further regulation, though, Cole has introduced no formal solutions yet to help solve the problem. The same cannot be said for Vance Phillips (R-5th), the only other Republican on council and someone who has not attempted to conceal his calls for additional density in the county.
Phillips noted recently that he supports “additional density” in the county and he will likely champion further density-trade ordinances through the planning process. Such ordinances would allow developers to exceed density requirements by paying fees to the county. That money raised would then be used to buy and preserve open space.
Phillips’ plan focuses on practical methods to further preserve open space in the county but does face opposition from “responsible growth” organizations such as the Lewes-based Citizens for a Better Sussex, led by Joan Deaver.
Public input on these and other issues will be encouraged at Tuesday’s meeting in Selbyville — and all other public meetings on the comprehensive plan update. County residents can also mail comments to Godwin at Sussex County administrative offices in Georgetown.
County residents can submit comments through Sussex County’s Web site at www.sussexcountyde.gov, as well. The homepage there contains a link to a page dedicated to the comprehensive planning process, where residents can submit comments.