In one way, the Great Recession has had positive effect

May 15, 2012

Sussex County Councilwoman Joan Deaver recently said something that - at first hearing - might sound inexplicable.

“The recession has saved us,” she said.

We were sitting in the Federal Street Gallery and Espresso Bar in Milton. Deaver was waiting to talk to voters who ambled in; the regular morning crowd was already chewing over the previous day’s events.

Deaver, of course, knows as well as anyone how devastating the Great Recession has been - jobs lost, homes foreclosed, retirement accounts decimated.

But in one - and perhaps only one - respect, it’s been a blessing. The recession - by stopping the unbridled development of the early 2000s in its tracks - has allowed us time to get our house in order.

It has allowed us time to hire a county planner - a position unfilled for the past two years - and prepare for growth.

Deaver is blunt. Right now we have no plan.

“If every lot was built out - the way it’s zoned now, in this county - we’d have a million more homes,” Deaver said.

Unlike Kent County, which has limited development in the east, Sussex has no designated areas where development is restricted. Growth can go anywhere and probably will - haphazardly, higgledly-piggledy, out of control. The way it was a few years ago.

All of us, at some point, have looked back and thought, If only I had known then what I know now, this would never have happened. I would have been able to prevent it.

For us, collectively, this is that moment. We have what may be the last opportunity to protect Sussex County’s natural heritage.

Anyone who’s been around a few years can see what we’ve lost. It’s time to preserve what we have. This is not just sappy, tree-hugger sentimentality. This is business. Big business.

Tourism in Delaware, according to state government statistics, is a $2.1 billion industry. It’s expected to grow, perhaps to as much as $4 billion a year.

But that economic growth will depend in part on how we control our residential growth - preserving our county’s natural beauty, preserving (and improving) our water quality, preserving our farms. (Farms may never match our beaches as tourist magnets, but they are becoming a more important part of the total package that attracts visitors - and keeps them coming back.)

Planning is essential. Not only to maintain our area’s natural beauty but to maintain our economy. Ben Franklin once said something to the effect, He who sacrifices freedom for security winds up with neither. We may be in a similar situation.

If we’re willing to sacrifice our natural heritage for economic security, we may wind up with neither. The recession has saved us, Deaver said. If we don’t take action now, that comment could come back to haunt us.

And on a related topic
A couple of months ago, publisher Dennis Forney wrote about plans to remove the unsightly snow fencing along Gills Neck Road in Lewes. This is great news for anyone who enjoys the elimination of eyesores. Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning, and a very small one at that.

Snow fencing - to me anyway - isn’t nearly as offensive as the abandoned houses, barns, trailers, shacks and who-knows-what that spoil what should be pleasant views throughout our county.

As in the comments above, it’s not beautifying for the sake of beautifying - though that’s not such a terrible idea - it’s making our region a more attractive destination for visitors. Not to mention preserving a landscape for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

There is no easy way to get rid of these structures. Having property condemned and removed is a slow process, as it should be. Just finding the owner can be difficult.

But the county should at least institute a program that keeps the problem from getting worse. There is money to do so. The county has millions of dollars in a reserve fund. Setting some aside and collecting as much as possible from the property owners could help make the program self-sustaining. As with planning, the sooner Sussex County starts, the better.

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