Kent County Levy Court passes planning power to county administrator

DOVER — Despite a 5-2 recommendation from the Kent County Regional Planning Commission (RPC) to deny the proposal, Levy Court commissioners voted 6-1 Tuesday night to pass two ordinances that broaden the county administrator’s “decision-making authority” over the planning department and creates an extra layer of appeals.

Earlier this month, the RPC’s motion stated “based on the findings, an additional method of appeal is not beneficial to county residents and businesses.”

Currently, planning department director Sarah Keifer reviews all applications submitted to the county and denies or approves them based on interpretation of Kent County Code.

Eric Buckson

From there, applications pass on to the Regional Planning Commission and Levy Court for consideration.

The two amendments (LC19-18, LC19-19) give more oversight of the planning process to the county administrator’s office — namely in granting it appeal authority over planning department decisions. Applicants aggrieved of the planning department’s decision would be able to appeal to the county administrator first, before approaching the RPC — which is the current appeals process.

The change also adds a section that clearly states: “The county administrator shall have direct management and decision making authority over the department of planning services.”

Addressing the break from the RPC recommendation, 4th District Commissioner Eric Buckson — who introduced the proposals originally in July — says he believes the change benefits all parties.

“I believe this is customer-friendly and county friendly,” he said. “I want to be clear that this is not a titanic shift. There are hundreds of transactions that go on that are seamless and will require no action at all. It is those occasions where an appeal of this level is warranted that I wholeheartedly support this and believe, again, it will be a benefit both to the county and customer. I value the RPC’s decisions, I listen to what they say. I agree with them 95 percent of the time, but in this instance I just simply disagree.”

Both Ms. Keifer and Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange declined to comment about the amendments.

Five people turned up to the public forum on Tuesday to speak in favor of the proposals, with none speaking against them.

“I think this is needed to help more businesses come to Kent County,” said Albert “Bill” Holmes Jr. — formerly an RPC member for 24 years. “It’ll help to get approved faster and make this county a friendlier place to do business and also to help the current business community grow their businesses and be profitable.”

In his capacity as a board member on the Kent Economic Partnership, Denis McGlynn also spoke publicly about the need for the change.

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the effort across the state to make Delaware the most business-friendly state it can possibly be, all in an effort to foster economic development,” he told commissioners. “From our understanding at the partnership, these two amendments are in line with those initiatives insofar as they can, in certain cases, streamline the development process and other cases, perhaps, save some expense and time on behalf of the applicants. So, these are positive outcomes in our view.”

Representing the executive committee of the Greater Kent Committee, Shelly Cecchett supported the measures for the same reason.
“We support these ordinances and anything we can do to continue to streamline economic development that is critical to Kent County,” she said.

The lone dissenting voter, 2nd District Levy Court Commissioner Jeffery Hall, pushed back on the amendments. Since their introduction in July, Mr. Hall has repeatedly said that the need for the changes has never been clearly explained.

“To the issue of streamlining the approval process, no one has explained why we cannot just change code that may be constraining the staff to issue decisions that they arrive at,” he said. “I believe that the staff is business-friendly, they’ve approved 100 waivers since 2013 and 21 variances since 2017.”

Calling the changes “unprecedented,” Mr. Hall feels that making the administrator an appeals authority is a policy that may produce inconsistent, and thus “inequitable,” results for residents dealing with the planning department.

“One of my concerns if we have the same information being reviewed by two different people but coming to two different conclusions — one being the director of planning services and the other being the county administrator — then we could get in a situation where we’re producing decisions that are in conflict within the county staff itself,” he said. “On top of that, it’s a workload issue. Anything that’s free that produces good results will become very popular, so the I believe the default process will become: bring and application forward and if it gets denied, just take it up to the next level.

“So what seems to be, at first, a very small time footprint will become a big one for the county administrator to process all the appeals coming to him for the determination commissioners may want rather than ones consistent and uniform across all of the residents.”

Mr. Hall even expressed concern that the changes will eventually be used to grown Kent County bureaucracy.

“I guarantee that this additional workload will be the justification for a deputy county commissioner position in the FY21 budget,” he said. “The level of responsibility and likely planning credentials will mean such a position will be costly in terms of salary and benefits.”

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