Proposal to amend Kent County planning appeals voted down

DOVER — The Kent County Regional Planning Commission voted 5-2 Thursday against a recent proposal to broaden the county administrator’s “decision-making authority” over the county’s planning department. Only RPC commissioners Paul Davis and William Jester were in favor of the proposals.

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 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.

When proposed, Levy Court commissioners voted 6-1 to advance the proposals.

The carried RPC motion stating that “based on the findings, an additional method of appeal is not beneficial to county residents and businesses,” the proposals will now return to Levy Court with a “denial” recommendation. Levy Court will once again consider the proposals on Sept. 24 after another public hearing.

Dissenting voter 2nd District Levy Court Commissioner Jeffery Hall has stated 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 last week. “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,” 4th District Commissioner Eric Buckson, who introduced the amendments, has said. “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.”

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, 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.”

Agreeing with Mr. Hall, the majority of RPC commissioners felt the need for the change was not well demonstrated.

“I was wondering why we are doing this, so I asked why, and the answer was: ‘well, six to one, the Levy Court wants it,” RPC commissioner Eugenia Thornton said Thursday night. “But why does Levy Court want it? We don’t know.”

RPC commissioner Denise Kaercher said it appeared the reason for the requested change seemed like “personnel reasons” rather than a well-thought-out administrative need.

“When I read any law, ordinance, etc., I do not do so with specific people or personalities involved in mind,” she said. “Those are issues that don’t concern ordinances and laws. To change an ordinance to fix and issue that should be dealt with in more constructive ways — that won’t change in general how the county operates — is, in my opinion, ludicrous.”

In favor of the amendments, Mr. Davis claimed the proposed appeals process could help directors avoid embarrassing public meetings.

“Everybody has a boss, I don’t care where you work, I don’t see what the big deal is about having a second opinion,” he said. “I’d rather see the director (of planning) to be able to go to the county administrator and have him review it (a planning application) as opposed to coming before this commission and having a public meeting and you don’t know what’s going to come out on the table. It sometimes could be very embarrassing for the director, and that’s not fair to the director to come to a public meeting — we’ve all been here long enough to know that sometimes the public can be very unkind.”

For more information on the upcoming Levy Court meeting to address the proposals, visit 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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