Disparate interest brought together in Fenwick

Fenwick Island Town Council Member Chris Clark admittedly expected a bigger turnout for the Nov. 4 Your Town meeting he had helped organize in the town. But at the conclusion of the two-hour event with several dozen people in attendance, he recognized it was a matter of “quality over quantity.”
Clark and fellow Your Town organizers Bill McGowan and John Mateyko did manage at least one of their goals for attendance at the meeting: there were Sussex Countians present from a wide variety of backgrounds — from coastal homeowners to inland farmers to government officials from both the county and local levels, including the county’s western side, which had been underrepresented in the original three-day Your Town conference held in Lewes in September.

The result was a synergy of many aspects of the community — a key goal of the Your Town movement if its long-term goal of making a roadmap for the county’s future is to become a reality.

“What’s happening needs to happen,” Clark said as attendees at the Nov. 4 meeting broke into groups to discuss how best to get more of the county’s residents involved in the effort. “It’s a learning process.”

It was that eye-opening aspect of the meeting that got Clark really energized, as farmers discussed the impact of anti-development pressures on their financial health, while coastal residents emphasized the impact of development on their infrastructure and western officials related the problems to the jobs their own constituents hold.

Each of the groups has a stake in the 2007 iteration of the county’s comprehensive land-use plan (CLUP), and some of those interests seem mutually exclusive. The question is whether they can be combined into a whole that will satisfy everyone — or anyone — in the wake of the current plan that has left many on the county’s eastern side so unsatisfied.

Indeed, Bridgeville Mayor Joe Conaway argued that the existing plan was doing what it had been designed to do, as a compromise between the varied interests that gave input on it.

“The plan was a compromise of 100 hearings. It’s a good plan. It works,” Conaway said, to vocal disagreement from Fenwick Island Town Council Member Harry Haon, among others.

The Sussex County Council is not distanced from its constituents, as his Eastern counterparts often argue, Conaway said. It merely represents all the county and reflects the existing plan in its decisions.

Meanwhile, Mateyko said his problem — and a main inspiration for seeking the National Endowment for the Arts grant that funded Your Town workshops in only four communities nationwide this year, including Sussex County — was the inability for he and his fellow Lewes residents to go grocery shopping after 9 a.m. due to traffic.

That’s a problem with which most residents of coastal Sussex can empathize.

And those seeking to limit that kind of infrastructure problem by limiting how farmers can sell and develop their properties — some of the few bits of open space left in Eastern Sussex — got an earful from Laurel farmer and Sussex County Farm Bureau President Burton Messick, who noted that crop prices hadn’t increased over the last decade, forcing the county’s farmers to sell off their land in order to keep farming.

“How many of you have ever talked to a real, live farmer?” asked McGowan, an extension educator for community development for the University of Delaware.

The question drew a few laughs with its lightness, but only a few in the room raised their hands in the affirmative.

Seventh-generation farmer Keith Johnson was at the meeting to represent his family’s interest in their Route 20 farm and farm market outside Fenwick Island, which was one venue through which some of the attendees had met that real, live farmer.

“This may be their last chance,” he interjected with a wry grin after McGowan’s question, introducing both mirth and seriousness to the topic.

Johnson noted a disparity in the ownership of land versus the activism that had sprung up over infrastructure concerns.

“The people who are the most concerned about the problem have the least ownership of the land they want to save,” he said. “They’re too quick to choose what they want to save without asking the land owner what they want to do.”

Johnson does understand the focus on retaining the county’s agricultural tradition — even for those who live in suburban-style developments and often put their focus on the seaside aspects of his neighboring communities.

“We happen to be the open field across from Swann Estates,” Johnson said, acknowledging the statement of Chancellor William Chandler at the original September Your Town meeting that referenced the value Sussex Countians place on being able to look out their windows upon open fields.

“If they want to preserve that, the most effective way to do so,” he said, “is to buy that land at a fair market value.”

Development moratoriums hurt the farmer, Johnson insisted. “The farmer is at the bottom of things,” he said, joking that that position would explain the odor on the farm.

It was a joke, but it’s also a common complaint that farmers hear when city-dwellers move to developments neighbored by farms, along with the dirt and dust raised by plowing activities or the noise of work done on early mornings or weekends at the seven-days-a-week job.

Add that to low prices for the things farmers produce, the high value of their large plots of land to developers and a reluctance on the parts of some younger generations of farm families to continue to work the farms, and it’s a recipe for not only the loss of farms in Sussex County, but those open fields the non-farmers are keyed up to preserve.

The Johnsons have done one thing that has been recommended by experts in preserving that way of life: value-added farming, with a direct-to-consumer market that sells their crops and those of other farmers in the wider region. But they still feel the financial pressures of that struggling industry.

State Rep. Gerald Hocker knows the plight of his farming constituents and their neighbors.

“The cheapest and easiest way to keep open space is to keep the farmer farming,” he said. While he wouldn’t ever vote for expanded gaming, he noted, it was slots that kept the state’s horse farmers going.

Value-added farming, mixed-use development focusing on residential space above commercial establishments — even the U.K. model of tourism-based support for the family farm — they were all ideas forwarded at the meeting to help preserve that open space.

But it’s a long way between the kernels of ideas that could one day present a solution and making that solution a reality.

The key challenge will be getting a consensus of county residents on the same page for a plan and willing to work together to make it a reality. And that is the core goal for the Your Town movement.

Extending beyond the more local focus of some of the other Your Town meetings held around the country, the Sussex County effort has focused on building a consensus on what is best for the county as a whole and bridging the gaps between individual concerns.

Clark said he fears the county risks losing its resources — including that open space — in the next generation if something is not done. Many coastal residents are focused on infrastructure, while western residents put emphasis on the jobs created along the county’s transportation corridors. And the farmers are generally just seeking to survive.

Building a synergy of those concerns will be a task for future Your Town meetings — already planned in Bethany Beach, with a goal to take them to each of the municipalities in the county.

The Nov. 4 meeting already drew representatives from around the county, adding to the presence of Conaway, Hocker, Haon and Clark those of Dagsboro Mayor Brad Connor, Sussex County Councilman Vance Philips, Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Rodney Smith, Fenwick Island Town Council Member Martha Keller, Bethany Beach Planning Commissioner Steve Wode, and Joan Deaver of Citizens for a Better Sussex.

A near-term goal for Your Town is to again increase participation from the western side of the county, with a Georgetown meeting mentioned by those at the Fenwick Island meeting as one way to meet that goal.

At least one goal of the Fenwick Island meeting was reached: educating county residents to other viewpoints in the struggle to map out a future upon which they can all agree.

“What right do we have to decide whose land is to be saved,” said Peggy Baunchalk, a resident of Fenwick Island and former town council president. “I hadn’t thought of that before.”

Similarly, farmers and western residents got a vociferous reminder about the daily difficulties faced by residents of the east, where most of the county’s development has been focused.

“I don’t want to tell them what to do,” Clark said of those whose ideas on the subject of development differ. “I do want them with me at the table” in developing the next CLUP, he emphasized.

Clark said those interested in the Your Town effort should focus on getting their friends, families and representatives involved. That will involve work with the county government, Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) and others.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Lots of groups will need to get involved.” “The challenge was to get a more diverse group tonight,” he added.

In the end, it is a roadmap for the county that will be the likely outcome of the Your Town group’s input into the next land-use plan.

“We are choosing our community’s future,” Clark emphasized.