Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Marty Ross says it's the planning and zoning commission's job to write the county's new comprehensive land-use plan, but so far, that's not happening.
“We are required to do it; it's our job and right now we are not doing our job. We are a spectator, in my opinion,” Ross said at the end of the commission's Feb. 9 meeting.
Ross, a retired Delmar-area farmer, is concerned the commission is not at the forefront of writing the new plan. He says the only way to do that is to dissect the old plan and make changes with input from county officials, staff, the consultants and the public.
Ross, who has served on the commission for eight years, said there is no process in place to compare the old plan with the new plan, which is critical to gain a better understanding of land-use in the county.
Commission Chairman Bob Wheatley said a process would be worked out.
“There better be because I'm close to saying this is not working well for me. We are a year in, and we are bystanders. I'm not a happy camper. And if I have another councilman tell me he doesn't want to hear my opinion, he and I will do more than dancing,” Ross said.
Ross was referring to a debate he had with County Councilman George Cole during a Feb. 7 plan workshop.
Wheatley and assistant county attorney Vince Robertson said county council has given direction to write a new plan and not rehash what's in the old plan. Wheatley said this will be the first new plan in 20 years because previous plans were updates.
Ross stressed that by state law, it's the commission that writes the draft plan that is eventually submitted to county council for approval.
Ross: 'That's bad government'
Ross said during the joint workshop with consultants McCormick and Taylor and county staff, the commission and council were asked to agree on 115 bullet points listed as goals and objectives. “It ended up that we all agreed, but we didn't know what we agreed to,” he said. “That's bad government, and I will not be a part of that. I did it one time; I will not do that again.”
Ross said, and other commissioners agreed, that before another joint workshop with council is scheduled, the commission wants a workshop with consultants and staff. “We need quality time with the consultants,” Ross said.
“We need a process within the commission to work with the consultants and staff to have the commission write the plan, which is required by law,” Ross said. “And we already have a draft – the old plan.”
He said there will be differing opinions on some material in the plan, but the commission and council will agree on about 95 percent. Ross said when the commission and council have differing ideas, they should be presented to the public as multiple-choice options. “The public needs to be able to discuss the pros and cons of the choices and let us know what to focus on,” he said. “That's why we have a preliminary draft.”
“It sounds like you are saying write the plan first and then get public input; we do it the other way around,” Wheatley said. “One thing is certain, that at some point planning and zoning commission and county council have to commit to a course of action and stop dancing around and pick an approach. The consultants can give us ideas, but at the end of the day we have to decide.”
Wheatley said it's a misconception that the new plan will be totally different from the old plan. “In my mind there is no way that can happen because the county is different but not totally different than it was 10 years ago,” he said.
He said about half to two-thirds of the old plan's language will be contained in the new plan.
Wheatley suggested the commission set aside time to look at each element in the plan. “We need time to compare to the old plan and suggest modifications. We need a draft to work from so in an orderly fashion we can go through it section by section and do our thing with it,” he said.
“We will get public input, but at the end of the day we will be the ones to decide. The public has entrusted that responsibility to us and county council. The issue we are struggling with is the order these things happen,” Wheatley said. “Staff and consultants need direction from us and county council. We don't need to write every word, but we do want the opportunity to edit it.”
Janelle Cornwell, the county's planning and zoning director, said another joint workshop will be scheduled in March with another public meeting to be scheduled in the spring. She said once the vision statement, goals and objectives and land-use scenarios are agreed on, staff and consultants can start writing the required elements in the plan. She said some of the elements would be ready for the commission's review during the summer with all completed by the fall.
She said the spring public hearing would be to gain input on the goals and objectives established by county officials.
The plan must be approved by state planners and signed by the governor by June 30, 2018. To comment on the plan, go to sussexplan.com.