Growth is coming back, but are we ready for it?

April 17, 2012

Growth is coming back and we’d better be ready for it. That could be the main theme of Joan Deaver’s campaign to keep her Third District Sussex County Council seat.

I spoke with Deaver, the lone Democrat on county council, last week at her meet-the-voters gathering held at the Federal Street Gallery and Espresso Bar in Milton. Milton lies in the center of the district, which includes Lewes and extends north and west to Slaughter Beach, Milford and Ellendale.

Deaver said she sees indications of renewed growth on Facebook, with real estate agents posting comments such as “I have three settlements today,” or “I had 12 showings today.”

Many buyers from Washington, D.C. are coming with cash, she said. They’ve sold larger houses and are moving to smaller houses.

“We’re going to have growth. That’s going to happen,” Deaver said. “I just want it to be organized and for people to have some say.”

That’s not what’s happening. Sussex County, unlike Kent and New Castle, has no plan for growth and no planner. The last planner left two years ago.

“We can approve a subdivision anywhere in the county, away from services,” Deaver said. That makes it more expensive to run school buses and emergency services, with taxpayers picking up the tab.

“The big issue is, who’s going to pay for the roads, the schools, the hospitals, the EMS for those new folks?”  Deaver asked. “Should you and I have to pay for it? Right now,” she said, “that’s the way it’s going to happen.”

According to Deaver, the issue could be addressed through an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which would require developers to “pay their fair share of infrastructure costs.” She plans a workshop on the issue.

Deaver also wants the public to be more aware of proposed developments and rezonings that can affect them.

She said she has an email list of 1,500 people, divided into neighborhoods. When she sees something coming up in a neighborhood, she lets them know. But the list doesn’t include everybody.

The county needs more transparency, she said. Many people don’t read legals, she said, and even those who do can find it hard to understand the old-fashioned language, which often includes an inadequate description of the location.

(She did point to one improvement. The tax map number is now included in legals, making it easier to look up information online.)

Notices are often sent out to people who live within 200 feet of a proposed rezoning, but not always. It’s not a law, she said; the county considers it a courtesy. She’s also fought to have larger signs placed on proposed rezoning sites.

I asked Deaver what kind of complaints she hears about from residents. One of the biggest issues lies close to home – literally.

That issue is water. When it rains, it pours, flooding homes and neighborhoods. Not all this can be prevented. Sussex County is flat and has a high water table.

But part of the problem is the county’s hands-off approach to the issue. Kent and New Castle counties have drainage regulations; Sussex doesn’t.

“The county refuses to take responsibility for drainage and stormwater,” she said.

A recent tour, which included Sen. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, and Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, drew attention to flood-prone areas.

The suggested solution was for the county to come up with a drainage code, Deaver said, but the county refuses.

“The guy next door can bring in a lot of fill dirt, raise his house up, and your house will flood,” Deaver said. “We saw that. That’s allowed.”

Which is hard to believe.

Limited government is one thing. That sounds more like non-government. It should be against the law to harm other people’s property by diverting storm water onto their lot. In Sussex County, it’s not.

“If you see fill dirt coming in,” she said, “beware.”

So what’s your recourse if you can’t go to the county?

You go to court, Deaver said. But not everybody can afford this. Citing one flooded house she saw on the tour, she said, “These folks abandoned their home. Do you think they’re in a position to sue?”

This isn’t an issue just among individual property owners. Sometimes the building of a new development will affect an existing development. That was the case in Milford.

“Ever since Hearthstone was built,” Deaver said, “Shawnee Acres has been flooding out.”

Deaver has concerns about her own house. When a new development was built nearby, she bought flood insurance.

And if we have another wet winter like 2009, watch out.

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