People at meeting concerned about losing property rights

August 28, 2012

The event could have been titled “Democracy in Action.” Or perhaps, “Democracy: Inaction.”

Either way, it was an inauspicious evening for the University of Delaware Sustainable Coastal Community Initiative, which is designed to get a public discussion started about growth and land use. The idea was for state and UD planners to outline various planning scenarios for the Cape Henlopen region, which includes Lewes and Rehoboth (but not Milton). Originally, only residents of Five Points had been invited to the meeting, which was held last Tuesday in the community center. Organizers expected 25-30 attendees.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, at least twice that number showed up, many of them members of the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, who had been alerted by an email from the Positive Growth Alliance.

The email read, “Is it time to stop growth? That seems like a pretty silly question doesn’t it? … Nevertheless, there will be a forum tomorrow night (Aug. 21) to discuss whether we need growth at all, at least in the Cape Henlopen region.”

But planning vs. growth isn’t just a false choice, it’s absurd.

Look at our two biggest industries, tourism and agriculture.

People come here to enjoy our beaches, waterways and open spaces. If we don’t plan for growth - if we allow development to occur everywhere - we’re likely to continue losing our natural heritage. Over time that will affect our attractiveness as a tourist destination - and as a place to live.

The same is true for agriculture, which needs designated areas to flourish. Farms and residential areas don’t mix well. People may think they want to live out in the country, but one whiff of manure in the morning can change their minds, resulting in friction with neighboring farmers. Too much friction and farmers start to leave, weakening one of the foundations of our economy. There’s even a developing overlap between tourism and farming. Visitors, as well as locals, enjoy picking up produce at the many farmers markets. And places, such as Lavender Fields Farm near Milton, have become destinations in themselves. That said, project leaders are going to have to communicate more with the public, if master planning is to move forward. (They have tried. Public meetings have already been held in Lewes and Rehoboth. More will be necessary.)

Last Tuesday, Ed Lewandowski, a development specialist with UD, had barely begun his overview before running into headwinds from people who questioned the beginning scenarios and the master planning process itself.

One man pointedly asked, “Did you go through this process with the people who worked and struggled to buy this land?”

Another attendee, Larry Mayo, was concerned that three of the four scenarios showed green areas - no residential properties - where he now lives.

“I want to know by what authority someone’s going to try to move all the people that are in that area now,” he said. “Is it going to be done by eminent domain?” Lewandowski assured Mayo the scenarios were merely talking points subject to change, but that did little to allay attendees’ concerns.

Keith Johnson, who lives between Lewes and Georgetown, asked if Sussex County Council had endorsed the master planning project. “If they have not endorsed this little exercise that you’re doing right now,” he said, “you cannot take this to them and say, ‘This is what the people want,’ because the people have not been informed about what you guys were doing. You’re playing with people’s private property.”

Yes, you could say people were suspicious. Among those present was Jeff Cragg, the Republican candidate for governor, who has a summer home here. He had it right when he said by email later that he had witnessed “a deep passion and suspicion of the entire process by community members who value property rights.

“I really feel that much more work needs to be done to establish community support and buy-in to the entire process,” he continued. “What's at stake is the legitimacy of any work product developed … I think the efforts of ‘the planners’ are filled with good intentions, but they need to step back from the process and get community support if they expect all of the community to value their hard work and plan.”

After the opening portion of the meeting, Mayo, one of the most vocal critics at the meeting, was having an animated conversation with the only audience member who spoke in favor of planning. (He wouldn’t give me his name.) I couldn’t tell if they reached common ground, but at least they were talking and afterward they shook hands. All in all, democracy in action.

For more information about the initiative, go to the Cape Henlopen Regional Plan website.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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