Lewes needs a full-time planner

April 11, 2014

When we moved to Lewes a few years ago, we were suffering from urban exhaustion after many years spent wrestling with both our elected officials and our neighborhood associations in Baltimore, over the best interests of our fair city’s taxpaying residents.

What we hoped to find here in Lewes - and have since experienced first-hand - was a far more congenial environment, in which civic engagement and deliberative public discourse were enthusiastically cultivated and openly valued in the spirit of good governance.

But last week’s special planning commission meeting was hardly exemplary of that spirit.  Given the meeting agenda - two highly controversial major subdivision proposals - the room was packed with city taxpayers, prepared to voice their concerns as they had always been invited to in the past.

We were quickly disabused of that collective expectation, however, when (in what seemed to be a scripted pronouncement) the commission’s attorney, presumably at the behest of its members, declared that while we were welcome to “observe” the proceedings, we were to save our comments for the public hearings.  Or to paraphrase an old-fashioned child-rearing notion, we were to be “seen and not heard.”

And not only did they draw a line in the sand with that opening comment, they managed to turn it into a rather sizeable trench before the meeting was over. Although public bodies do have the right to limit citizen input at open meetings such as this one, the Delaware Department of Justice actually encourages them to allow public participation; and the City of Lewes - to its ­­credit - has always followed that advice. In fact, our city leaders normally provide a rather prominently placed podium - complete with microphone - just for that purpose at all of its public meetings.

So why was it suddenly and conspicuously missing from the room last week -especially given the many legitimate questions around whether the proposed subdivision applications actually met certain legal and environmental requirements?  Questions that had been asked and subsequently  unanswered at other meetings before this one - but should indeed be considered, as these are issues that could have a truly negative impact on property values, public safety, and flood insurance rates in the years to come.

Emboldened by this urgency, and unaccustomed to their newly imposed “observation only” status, several well-known citizen advocates in the audience stepped forward to challenge these submissions, providing well-researched evidence to support their contentions.  While a few were actually allowed to speak (for some unknown reason), their concerns were for the most part either openly derided or dismissed out of hand, by both the attorney and several of the commission’s members.

Even more curious, others were denied the privilege to speak, including one especially knowledgeable expert - a geologist by training - who asked to read a statement that would have been extremely helpful to the decision-making process.  To be fair, one commission member - who is also running for city council - did express a few similar concerns of his own.

Still, in the end, both applications were unanimously approved for public hearing, at which time the attorney stated that expert testimony would be heard. Of course, to stop this freight train, we will probably need to bring in outside experts, who are not only expensive to hire, but also require adequate lead time to conduct their investigations.  Yet the commission seemed determined to schedule these hearings as soon as was legally possible (within 15 days).

And when several of us asked for at least 30 and perhaps even 60 days lead time to elicit and prepare proper testimony, we were essentially ignored.

On the other hand, commission members eagerly granted a similar request for delay from the Harbor Point developer - which certainly begs the question as to who this commission is actually there to serve - for-profit development companies or the taxpaying citizens who will ultimately bear the cost of their “sprawl.”

We might also ask ourselves why our city leaders continue to engage the legal advisory services of a law firm (Baird Mandalas Brockstedt) that according to its own website “represents developers before government and administrative bodies to obtain project approvals.”

Lost in this dustup is the obvious and fundamental question as to whether either proposed subdivision is consistent with the existing Lewes Comprehensive Plan, which according to the Delaware Code, Title 22, Chapter 7, “has the force of law” - although you would never know that based on the actions of both the planning commission and its attorney.

This is precisely why we desperately need a full-time AICP-certified city planner on our municipal payroll, who is both professionally and personally invested in the long- term interests of our community and its citizens.

Kathleen Harvatt

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