The Sussex County Council, at their Tuesday, July 28, meeting, discussed the July revision of the memorandum-of-understanding between the County and the Delaware Department of Transportation, and announced that public comments on the document would be accepted until the end of that day.
“We want the public to weigh in to see what their views are, their thoughts, recommendations,” Council President Michael Vincent told the Coastal Point.
“Then the council will read them all. The next phase will be to discuss what should and shouldn’t be changed. Public comments will go to the Clerk of the Court, and they will be shared with the council. The public should always have the opportunity to be heard,” he said.
The new version of the MOU provides better and more usable information, Assistant County Attorney Vince Robinson told council members at the meeting, and it states the County will always have the ability to require a traffic impact study, or TIS.
The MOU states that County officials are invited to participate in all conversations for an improved exchange of information.
“We haven’t always had a seat at that table. It isn’t because of any wrongdoing,” he said, as Councilman Samuel Wilson interjected, “The State don’t have good ears.”
“I’m pleased when we saw some of the written comments, that there were feelings that this is a much better document,” Robinson said.
Councilman John Rieley asked if the MOU stipulates how long developers have to obtain permits. Without limitations, control is conceded to DelDOT officials and puts them in charge of the permit process, he said.
“I want to make sure it isn’t open-ended,” Rieley said.
Robinson said there are steps in place to prevent that and that public hearings would be held.
Rieley said he’s heard it sometimes takes “an inordinate amount of time to get a permit” and asked that the document sets a reasonable limit. Agreeing, Robinson said, “We don’t want things to be held up.”
Councilman I.G. Burton said the MOU is not an ordinance, but an understanding of expectations.
“This has always been the chicken-and-the-egg scenario, and it must stop. It’s not OK anymore for DelDOT to say, ‘We’re not going to supply information until after you have made your land-use decision.’
“We cannot make good land-use decisions without the correct information, especially in hot [traffic] areas. I understand DelDOT’s position when it’s a real rural area and they don’t want to do all the traffic counts and there has just been no development out there. I understand that, but I think in hot areas … we have to know,” he said.
He called for the MOU to state that DelDOT will provide details concerning traffic impacts, and how DelDOT will address those impacts, when there are zoning changes, so the council can use that information to make decisions.
Robinson said the MOU is designed to foster better overall understanding, so individual projects are not considered “in a vacuum.” The approach is to look at projects as “sort-of real life,” he said.
The document contains information about rezonings.
“We do need flexibility on that. At the time of a rezoning, we don’t necessarily know what DelDOT’s specific plan is,” he said.
Vincent said he hadn’t yet read a lengthy document from the Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth. In May, the Alliance issued a position paper concerning land development coordination with DelDOT, regarding the process for determining traffic impacts.
Alliance members said that, for the past 32 years, the existing MOU and County development policies have “failed to ensure that the infrastructure necessary to support development is in place concurrent with the impact of the development.”
Sussex County, especially the area east of Route 113, has become the “state’s poster child for traffic congestion,” the Alliance document states, adding that the new MOU needs better balance, to reverse the process and “not continue to shift an undue burden onto the public.”
“Public safety and the protection of property values must be paramount,” it states.
Alliance members agreed with the MOU in some areas, including that it provides citizens with a more transparent, step-by-step process and clearer definitions of responsible parties; that when DelDOT determines traffic impact will be major, the developer will be required to conduct an in-depth Traffic Impact Study; Sussex County will be entitled to participate in negotiations; Sussex County may provide input into those negotiations, but DelDOT will make the final determination as to all required roadway improvements; during a site plan review, Sussex County may impose conditions regarding phasing and the timing of building permits; DelDOT will provide information about the general impacts of a rezoning on area traffic and roadways prior to public hearings; and Sussex County will withhold site plan approval until DelDOT has approved all necessary roadway improvements and entrances.
However, Alliance members stated there is a question of accountability because, while the draft refers to Sussex County making decisions, it doesn’t clarify who will make those decisions.
Alliance members complained that the draft contains wording “that allows DelDOT or the County to greenlight a project, even if it does not meet the standards set forth in the MOU and will cause increased congestion and degradation of levels of service.”
“Without a strict provision requiring a specific level of service for all new development, nothing will change. Despite years of being told how traffic was DelDOT’s responsibility, the fact is that DelDOT has no authority to regulate land use,” the Alliance release states.
The Alliance recommended more balance in the document and stated, concerning rezonings, that the draft “presents a challenge for decision-makers and a significant problem for DelDOT, the County and public as encourages responsible and transparent governance.”