Kent Levy Court seeks tighter control over county planning

DOVER — Two proposals at a Kent County Levy Court meeting in July would broaden the county administrator’s “decision-making authority” over the county’s planning department.

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

The two proposed amendments (LC19-18, LC19-19) would give greater control of the process to the county administrator’s office — namely in granting it appeal authority over planning department decisions.
When proposed, Levy Court commissioners voted 6-1 to advance the proposals to be voted on in an upcoming business meeting.

The final decision on the matter has not yet been added to the county’s agenda.
Dissenting voter 2nd District Commissioner Jeffery Hall believes the change would create a “clear conflict” for the county administrator’s office and feels the justification for it has not been clearly defined.

“I don’t see the need for this,” he said. “I’ve checked and found that no other Delaware county nor major municipalities have a similar arrangement between their county administrator/executive and any department.

“Also, I still don’t believe that the county administrator can serve as both the de facto director of a department and also serve as the appeal authority for decisions that come from that department. It’s a clear conflict.”

However, supporters of the proposal say it empowers county staff, creates a “tiered appeals process” and relieves pressure on both the county administrator and planning director.
“What we have, at times, is a need to have the county administrator be able to weigh in on decisions that are not definitive or exact,” said 4th District Commissioner Eric Buckson, who introduced the amendments. “What this essentially does is assists and gives support to the planning director. It provides guidance and expertise in making decisions where judgment calls are needed.

“The county wants to become a more business-friendly type of government and sometimes bureaucracy can get in the way — through no one’s fault.”
Both Ms. Keifer and Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange declined to comment about the amendments.
However, at the public meeting in July, Mr. Petit de Mange described the amendments as a way to serve applicants displeased with decisions reached by the planning department, rather than as a mechanism to “support” it.

“What’s being proposed is that we create a second level of appeal at the administrative level whereby someone aggrieved of the decision of the planning director would be able to appeal it to the office of the county administrator,” he said at the meeting.
“This would be to uphold the decision or overturn it and the ordinance describes the type of finding that would need to be produced when the final decision at the administrative level is made. Any decision that is still aggrieved after that, would then proceed to the planning commission for consideration.”

Mr. Hall says this is precisely his concern.
“When someone in the county wants a variance or to build something, they engage with the office of planning services — I think they do a great job of finding a way to get things done,” he said.

“But, when the process goes slowly or someone gets an answer they don’t like, the first thing they do is call their commissioner. We hear more about planning issues than any other aspect of county government in my opinion.

“This is why I’m asking: Is this change because planning is making flawed decision or is it because people are just getting decisions they don’t like? I think it’s the most important question to ask here because if they’re making bad decisions, we have a personnel problem.

“We need to do a good job of uniformly applying county code to everyone so no one gets any special treatment. I can see where an applicant might want the ability to put pressure on the planning department because they’re not getting the answer they wanted, and I just don’t think that’s right.”

Mr. Buckson says affirmatively that he does not believe the planning department is arriving at incorrect decisions.
But, he says that because planning applications occasionally aren’t neatly addressed by the current code and county staff must rely on their own interpretations.

“Sometimes the director of planning has to use reason and make a judgment call,” said Mr. Buckson. “When the decision isn’t obvious, it can be a lot of pressure to make that call, especially when you’re not the county administrator or an elected official. I don’t think this is something that’d be used frequently, and it definitely wouldn’t be used in any way that harms anyone — at a minimum, it’ll be used to assist both the county and constituents.”

The frequency of complicated planning applications was characterized somewhat differently by Mr. Petit de Mange in the July meeting though.

“On many, many occasions, several of you (commissioners) have come to me after decisions have been made, seeking a second opinion,” he said. “I can give that, but it’s of no affect because the director of planning services has the final decision.”

It’s unclear when Levy Court will discuss the amendments. Agenda updates can be found at co.kent.de.us/levy-court/events.aspx.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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