Some Sussex Co. hearings moving to DelTech

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson presents a change-of-venue proposal for public hearings on selected land-use applications at the Tuesday County Council meeting. Listening in are County Council members John Rieley, back left, and Doug Hudson and County Finance Director Gina Jennings. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Seeking additional capacity for public attendance, Sussex County government has collaborated with Delaware Technical Community College on a change of venue for select public hearings on land-use applications — a move that will address an application backlog during the coronavirus crisis.

Under the plan outlined by County Administrator Todd Lawson on Tuesday, selected hearings before the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission and Sussex County Council will be conducted in the spacious conference area of the William A. Carter Partnership Center on DelTech’s Jack F. Owens Campus in Georgetown.

At present, under Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency restrictions, council chambers in the County Administration Building on The Circle are limited to approximately 30 persons. The DelTech venue would accommodate more than double that and would adhere to social-distancing requirements.

“Given the nature that this (COVID-19) was not going to change, we decided to take a look at venues that could potentially hold our public meetings in and around Sussex County but, in particular, looking to stay in Georgetown,” Mr. Lawson said during the Tuesday County Council meeting. “Because we were limited in our capacity in this room on how many people could come by the state of emergency, there are selected applications — land use — that would never be heard by Planning & Zoning and County Council.”

The first venue change for a public hearing that county officials believe could draw substantial interest is one set for the Planning & Zoning Commission on Jan. 21. It is to start at 3 p.m.

Mr. Lawson said the relocation would involve 15 to 20 applications, some of which have multiple requests. He emphasized that regular meetings of the County Council and Planning & Zoning Commission will continue to be held in the County Administration Building. In addition, meetings with hearings that have no anticipated controversy or large-scale interest will be held at the county building.

“We’re only talking about change of zoning, conditional uses and subdivisions. Obviously, subdivisions are heard by Planning & Zoning Commission only,” said Mr. Lawson. “We are not going to conduct ‘regular’ county business at Delaware Tech.”

In 2020, a public hearing with significant interest during the state of emergency resulted in an overflow in the lobby (which is now closed to the public). Attendees also spilled out onto the sidewalk, where some individuals had to wait their turn to participate.

The site at the college campus will feature the same amenities that currently exist for public meetings staged in the council chambers, including livestreaming and dial-in access.

“Livestreaming broadcast on the county website will still (take) place, as well as the telephone call-in number. That is required to make sure that we comply with the governor’s restrictions. We have to have that,” Mr. Lawson said.

Security and health screenings, including touchless temperature checks, will be in place at the DelTech venue, just as they are currently conducted when entering the county facility.

Social-distancing and mask-wearing protocols will remain in effect.

County Councilman John Rieley applauded the county’s effort.

“I want to emphasize: Some people may be wondering why we are going to such efforts,” he said. “It’s a question of equity and the philosophical question of you’re coming to the government as a landowner, requesting permission to do something with your own property and being denied for a period of a year. Who knows? (Maybe) two years. At some point, there is a question of equity and fairness. So I think it’s great that we make every effort to accommodate and do what we can to recognize the interest of people that are coming and requesting our permission, in essence, to do what they would like to do with their own property. I applaud your efforts.”

Mr. Lawson acknowledged the cooperation from DelTech, which is basically operating with virtual learning except for lab work requirements. He thanked the Owens Campus administration, including Dr. Bobbi Barends and Chris Moody.

“They have been extremely flexible in our needs, and accommodating,” said Mr. Lawson.

All developers and representatives of land-use applications earmarked for public hearings at DelTech have been contacted and have agreed to the change of venue, he said.

“We have to make sure that we balance the need to keep moving with the public’s interest in these applications and meeting the governor’s restrictions that he has put in place. We want to keep development going. We want to keep these land-use applications moving,” said Mr. Lawson, who added that 10 years ago, at the height of development, there was often a two-year delay. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been. Right now, before COVID, we were getting applications through in under six months. Now, we have to address the backlog we have.”

Councilman Doug Hudson asked if the county incurred substantial cost in opting for the venue change.

“Substantial, no. Some, yes,” said Mr. Lawson. “We had to buy (information technology) equipment. The good news is it is the same equipment that we use in the building (council chambers), so it’s a spare.”

Mr. Lawson said there remains an element of the unknown. For example, will the interested members of the public choose to attend or will they tune in through other means of technology?

“One of the challenges in all of this is we are planning for the unknown. We think we have to find a venue that will hold as many people as we can because we don’t know. They may not come at all. We can’t plan like that. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario, which is as many people as possible will show up,” said Mr. Lawson. “That is why we picked the venue we did. We believe DelTech offers us the largest capacity for crowds that we have in Sussex County.”