New Kent Comprehensive Plan hints at economic development

DOVER — The 2018 Kent County Comprehensive Plan, two years in the making, received broad public support on Tuesday night before county commissioners unanimously agreed to adopt the document. It now moves on to its final step — certification by Gov. John Carney — which is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

The comp plan includes detailed plans and projects related to demographics, economic development, housing, community facilities, conservation, historic preservation, land use, transportation, community design, intergovernmental coordination and implementation strategies. It will officially replace the county’s 2007 Comprehensive Plan.

During the plan’s final public hearing at the Kent County Levy Court meeting on Tuesday night, state and town officials, business leaders and residents turned out to voice their support and appreciation of the comprehensive plans vision. There were no public comments made rejecting the plan.

Balance with rural character

During the drafting process, County planning director Sarah Keifer said a theme of balancing the county’s rural character with its desire to increase economic development emerged from resident input and data analysis.

“If you look at population projections, the county continues to grow, diversify and age — that brings with it any number of needs and desires from the population,” she said. “2018’s theme seems to be economic development and job growth. There’s a huge focus on enabling and encouraging economic development while at the same time respecting that we are a rural county. It’s a balance.”

The state’s planning officer lauded the plan and recommended approval at the hearing.

“This has been reviewed rather thoroughly by the state,” said David Edgell, a Kent County planner with the state planning office. “Comprehensive plans don’t only have to meet the needs of the community, but there are also some state requirements they have to follow, which this plan does. Something I’d highlight is that the county has followed its same growth management plans for over 20 years with the growth zone. Its protected many of the agricultural areas and directed growth into the central corridor where it has infrastructure, services and towns. That can’t be understated because it allows the state government and its agencies to do proper infrastructure planning and service planning for the population.”

Recent changes

While the new comp plan makes adjustments and projections county-wide, several recent changes to the plan around Little Heaven and Frederica, signal that the county is open to economic development in these areas specifically.

“The Kent Economic Partnership suggested to us to expand the employment center around the Little Heaven,” said Ms. Keifer. “We explored the idea and coordinated with the State Planning offices because there can be some concern about expanding too far east. We were able to work out some compromises though. South of Frederica, we also added a town area and expanded the commercial area after speaking with town officials.”

Fourth District Commissioner Eric Buckson believes the push for development in the county would be a natural extension of recent infrastructure investments.

“The state has invested $100 million in the southern part of the county when it comes to new service roads and overpasses — so this is expected and it’s a logical initiative,” he said. “But, it’s simply a vision and a plan.”

Though a wider berth was given to possible development in this area, it’s limited to the paper the plan is written on unless opportunity comes knocking, points out Ms. Keifer.

“Practically speaking, if it’s shown in the comprehensive plan, those are areas where rezoning will be considered favorably,” she said. “If you have a parcel in that area and want to bring an employer — not service and retail — you would have to apply for a rezoning. If infrastructure is in place to serve it, it’s likely that it’ll be supported by the county…”

The new zoning outlining “employment centers” would be distinct from existing zoning categories in that it would more rigidly outline permissible businesses, said Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange.

“Our current zoning code does have commercial districts and industrial districts and some semblance of office/campus types of zoning in text, but we really don’t have much of that on the ground,” he said. “If someone is planning something other than residential, the zoning category of choice tends to be BG (general business). But, there are 150 or so uses that could possibly occupy that. Most of it is service and retail type uses.”

Pro offices, campuses

Mr. Petit de Mange said the county’s vision for the new zoning type would target professional offices or campuses.

“We’re hoping the new zoning category will be reserve lands for things like larger-scale non-retail employment center developments — things like research and development parks, professional offices, business campuses and light industrial or manufacturing,” he said. “Currently, if something is zoned general industrial, it allows for all sorts of harsh uses. If someone comes in looking for 100 acres of general industrial zoned land, people immediately start thinking of smokestacks and things like that. If we more clearly defined the types of businesses allowed, we may be able to attract some high-tech, reputable companies that pay significant wages without having to fight the battle against fear that the zoning could allow for all kinds of different uses.”

However, a development spree seems a ways off still. Any future rezoning in these areas have been paused until the county develops “master plans” for them.

“The state planning office asked us to hold off from doing any actual rezoning until we write up master plans for each of those areas — that’ll be the very next thing we work on,” said Ms. Keifer. “Master plans are like little comp plans focused on a smaller area. They take into consideration things like infrastructure, potential road connections and sewer. After we draft those, there will be public outreach again and we’ll ultimately have to have them approved by the Levy Court.”

Words of caution

Though the plan was well received at the public hearing and no one registered a dissenting opinion, several parties offered words of caution regarding proposed employment centers in the southern portion of the county.

Linda Parkowski, director of the Kent Economic Partnership, said at the public hearing that county residents are calling for jobs and the county should answer.

“I think the citizens of Kent County spoke loud and clear in the comprehensive plan — they said they’re looking for jobs; good, well-paying jobs,” she said. “The Kent Economic Partnership has been involved in numerous meetings with the county, some of our feedback was taken and incorporated, some of it wasn’t. But that’s the way things go. At least we were able to provide the feedback. We support the master planning process, we just want to make sure that it’s done quickly and efficiently and that it doesn’t stop any progress that might happen in those areas.”

Agreeing, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce president Judy Diogo said the business community hopes the county acts decisively to expand opportunity.

Expanding opportunity

“We stand ready to work with you all on the master plan,” she said. “We need to keep this process moving, we don’t want to slow it down. I think we have a really good thing going here and we’re seeing a lot of partnerships and people stepping up to the table, and for the first time in a long time in Kent County we’re all singing the same tune.”

Dave Hugg, director of the City of Dover’s planning department, suggested that the county involve local residents in the process to avoid pitfalls. Mr. Hugg and his department are currently at work on Dover’s own comprehensive plan slated to be complete sometime early next year.

“You have an outstanding comprehensive plan, and on behalf of the City of Dover I thank you for the high level of cooperation we’ve had during the process,” Mr. Hugg said during the public hearing. “I would say, please do the master plan carefully and thoughtfully. Involve the citizens and property owners that are affected by it.”

Local resident Boyd White, who’s been living in the Little Heaven and Magnolia area since 1968, said he was pleased that the county appeared to be doing its due diligence ahead of zoning changes near his home.

“Levy Court was very thoughtful to add an amendment to the comp plan requiring a master plan for the proposed Little Heaven and Frederica employment centers,” he said. “Their decision to go forward with master plans for those areas will be a great benefit to future employers, residents and the county. I look forward to being involved with the process.”

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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