Technology, talk allow towns to tackle ‘wicked problem’

March 18, 2014

Land use isn’t just a difficult problem, according to Ed Lewandowski, coastal communities development specialist with the University of Delaware. No, it’s way worse than that.

“Land use,” said Lewandowski, “is what social scientists call a wicked problem.

“It means it’s a problem without a real solution. There are too many conflicting sources of information, too many opinions about it, too much financial burden,” he continued. “There just never seems to be a right answer.”

Lewandowski was speaking last Tuesday before a League of Women Voters of Sussex County forum with the wickedly boring title of “Enhancing Citizen Engagement in the Participatory Planning Process.” About 60 people attended the event, which was held at the Beebe Healthcare Campus on Route 24.

While it might sound dull, the consequences of planning - or not planning, as the case may be - are anything but. Along with sea level rise, land use is one of the most important issues facing coastal Sussex.

Dorothy Morris, a circuit rider planner for the state of Delaware who also attended the forum, explained why.

When we don’t plan, according to Morris, the state doesn’t prepare for needed infrastructure. The result: “The state can’t catch up,” Morris said.

In Sussex, we know this all too well. Just take a drive down Route 24, which was described as a “failed road” before some of the recent developments. And more are planned, plus a new school.

As for catching up? Good luck with that. Gov. Jack Markell recently proposed catching up on state road projects with the help of a 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. Let’s just say it wasn’t met with great enthusiasm, even from members of his own party. I’ll be surprised if Markell garners enough support for even a portion of his proposed gas tax increase.

So planning is important. In Sussex, it’s also about as popular as higher gas taxes.

But, Lewandowski, who is well aware of that, has a story to tell. It’s a tale of two cities.

Well, towns actually, Greenwood and Bridgeville. They don’t like each other, said Lewandowski.

Which was news to me. The two towns share a common agricultural heritage and a common roadway, U.S. 13, which runs down the middle of both.

They even share a school district, Woodbridge, whose name was derived from the names of the two towns. (Note to newbies: there is no town of Woodbridge in Delaware.)

They also share a wastewater treatment plant, which has been a source of conflict between the towns. Some decades back, Lewandowski said, what many consider a bad agreement on wastewater was negotiated, and the resulting tension persists today. (Lewandowski hails from Bridgeville, so he knows what he’s talking about.)

“Getting these two together to talk about anything is a feat in and of itself,” he said.

Nevertheless, they came together to talk about a master plan, mainly because of something else they share: the watershed of the Nanticoke River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

In May 2009, President Obama issued an executive order declaring the Chesapeake a “national treasure.”

This was more than a pleasant-sounding title. It meant an effort to restore the bay. It meant that the EPA was going to establish of a Total Maximum Daily Load - a “pollution diet” - to limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that enters the estuary.

And it meant that towns like Greenwood and Bridgeville would have to come up with master plans to show they could control future growth and pollution.

With grants from the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the towns received help from Lewandowski’s office to help develop a master plan. The effort started with elected officials, but many others were brought in, including landowners from outside the town limits.

They decided on five main goals:

1) Preserve the character of the community.

2) Contain growth on the highway - “They didn’t want another Seaford,” Lewandowski said.

3) Enhance agribusiness.

4) Build cost-effective infrastructure that didn’t burden taxpayers. This is a huge issue. The effect of poor or non-planning is to make infrastructure more expensive for everybody. Reducing pollution was also part of this goal.

5) Improve “community connectedness,” using lights and walkways.

To help people understand and articulate what they wanted their communities to be, the university has something called the WeTable, which is based on Wii game technology.

It allows people to try various scenarios and receive immediate information about the consequences of those decisions.

Coastal Sussex, of course, would have different community goals than our not-so-far neighbors in Greenwood and Bridgeville.

But if we want to preserve the character of our community - and help reduce pollution in the Inland Bays - we need to take planning more seriously.

  • Accomplished writers appear 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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