County could be poster child for development

September 19, 2023

“The typical post-war development operator was a man who figured how many houses he could possibly cram onto a piece of land and have the local zoning board hold still for it. Then he whistled up the bulldozers to knock down all the trees, bat the lumps off the terrain and level the ensuing desolation. Then up went the houses, one after another, all alike.” – John Keats, The Crack in the Picture Window, 1956.

It is truly regrettable how little has changed in the 67 years since Keats wrote those words. Whether a standard or a cluster subdivision, the result is a landscape of disjointed jigsaw puzzle pieces; individual subdivisions, walled off from and unconnected to each other, with no sense of community or cohesiveness beyond school bus routes, clubhouses and community pools, or as Keats describes them, "whole square miles of identical boxes spreading like gangrene.” Is this really the best we can do?

Sussex County, with all of its resources, has the potential to be a model of quality development.  But not if we continue to accept the one-off patchwork approach to development prevalent today. Unless the county government truly embraces the vision of the 2018 comprehensive plan, its future will be nothing but a jumble of fragmented, isolated cookie-cutter subdivisions, polluted waterways and gridlocked roads. Open space and forests will continue to disappear, farmland forever lost and with it the county's historical legacy as well as its largest industry by dollar volume. 

The upcoming review of county land-use codes regarding superior design is much needed, but too narrow in its scope. Superior design must not be focused just on individual developments, but also applied holistically throughout the county. It should be the standard applied to everything the county does to create the highest-quality built environment for residents and better protect and preserve its exceptional, but threatened, natural environment. Revising codes is important, but only if done to fulfill a clear, overarching vision of what the county should become as it continues to grow.  Without that focus on the future, the codes are nothing but words on paper with no direction as to what they are to accomplish.  

Just as the county has grown haphazardly over the past 40 years, the next 40 will lock Sussex County into its final lasting character. Will it be a continuation of the same patterns of scattered, disconnected pieces that never form a complete picture? The council could create a new vision that truly embraces superior design principles, not just in individual subdivisions, but end-to-end across the county. Why shouldn't Sussex be the poster child of superior design? This is what the comp plan envisions but has not delivered.  

County council must boldly think out of the box and use its creative imagination to find solutions that may not be considered standard but will improve the lives of the residents. This is an opportunity to innovate and create a lasting legacy for this council. The upcoming review of land-use codes must not result in the status quo or another can being kicked down the road.  

Jeff Stone


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