Another reason a Sussex County planner is needed

June 3, 2011

Do Sussex County officials need more training? Are county officials getting good legal advice? If so, are they listening to it?

These are hard but legitimate questions being asked following some court cases overturning recent Sussex County government decisions.

At the top of the list is a decision overturned in U.S. District Court. A judge ruled county council must adopt the findings and conditions from its planning and zoning commission when it recommended approval of a conditional-use application for offices filed by Chase and Kelly Brockstedt. With a 3-2 vote, council denied the application.

It’s like county government in reverse. Planning and zoning is supposed to be a support system for council to offer recommendations. Sometimes council backs planning and zoning’s decisions, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Has a precedent been set?

What’s being missed in this particular case is a series of missteps. First and foremost, at least in my mind, is planning and zoning commissioners voted on the application without the county engineer’s report detailing what was required for sewer service to the three parcels to be used for the offices along Savannah Road and Dove Drive near Lewes.

That report outlined a concern for sewer capacity in the sewer district, yet the commissioners never saw it. One commissioner later told me it was a critical oversight that should have been considered.

At least one county council member, George Cole, questioned the issue of sewer capacity at the site during the public hearing before council. The answers he received influenced his decision because he was one of the three who voted against the application.

It really didn’t matter, at least in the court’s eyes, because the applicant was not afforded due process to study the report and publicly comment on it.

Because of the times we live in, Sussex County elected and appointed officials, as well as employees, need to make sure that every application is checked and rechecked to make sure all the bases are covered.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a competent land-use planner, which the county does not employ, would assist in the process to make sure all the bases are covered. In all fairness, considering the number of applications county officials vote on during the year, only a few end up before a judge. Even so, that does not discount the need to make sure the job of government is done well.

One might think the county spends millions on legal fees, but that is not the case. Even though the county’s legal fees have increased about $115,000 over the past four years, in the total scope of things, the total is not even close to 1 percent of the overall $47 million general fund budget.

The county has budgeted $272,500 for legal services in its proposed fiscal 2012 budget. Compare that to the $547,000 it has budgeted to cover county council expenses. Even though the county is doing a commendable job of tightening its belt, perhaps consideration should be given to putting some money into training and education. Over the past four years, the county has spent just $45 on training and education. Hopefully council members have gained some insight from the $2,000 spent on seminars and conferences.


  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

    Contact Ron at