‘Story maps’ provide a look at Kent’s vital statistics

DOVER — In early August, Kent County’s Department of Planning Services began releasing “story maps” that give a rough sketch of the county’s vital statistics ahead of the upcoming release of their 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

Initially, the department released data maps based on economic development, population distribution and parks and recreation. Over the last few weeks, they’ve added sections on housing, natural resources, community facilities and historic preservation. Most sections are continuously receiving updates as the planning department aggregates more data.

Lots of interesting snip-its of county information come to light during the process of building the first draft of the comprehensive plan, said county planning department director Sarah Keifer.

“When we did a section on housing 10 years ago, many people were panicking about subdivisions and the county’s ability to support them,” said Ms. Keifer. “It was interesting to see though, in the last three years, we’ve had only one new subdivision and it just expired. So there’s been no new speculation on housing lots. We’ve expunged more than 4,000 lots that construction never commenced on, but we still have more than 5,000 vacant lots in subdivisions throughout the county. Back in 2010, 16 percent of the housing stock was vacant also. Now, by the 2015 estimates, that occupancy rate has dropped to 9 percent, so that’s definitely a positive.”

The story maps being published on the county’s website are partly to solicit public feedback, but also to inform the public of the planning department’s comprehensive plan drafting process, Ms. Keifer said. The department is currently targeting mid-October to complete the first draft of the new plan — the existing plan is from 2007.

Ms. Kiefer feels that comprehensive plans are often misconstrued as nothing more than land use documents, but they can be much more, she said. One of the most important things the plan can do is help identify a region’s primary issues and begin a dialog on how to address them with public resources, she noted.

“In my view, the plan is an opportunity for the citizens and elected officials to have comprehensive conversation about where the county is, where it should go and how we might get there,” said Ms. Kiefer. “The actual process and conversation are the most important parts.”

For instance, during the drafting, Ms. Kiefer has noticed that the proportion of the aging population living alone is on the rise.

“In 2000 there were 10,800 single households — now it’s almost 15,000 and 6,500 are people over 65,” she said. “We have an aging population and we’re going to see more and more elderly people living on their own. I’ve been discussing it with our public safety director because there are some ways the county can play a role. Some jurisdictions establish check-in programs. There are also some interesting community paramedic programs out there.”

Another story map of interest, in the wake of both Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, is the natural resources map. It provides a detailed examination of Kent County’s floodplains, wetlands and waterways.

“The county already does a fair amount to protect these areas already,” said Ms. Kiefer. “In 2003 we prohibited subdivision of the floodplain and we are part of the flood insurance program. We also updated our flood regulations a few years ago. We’ve traditionally required one foot of freeboard so you have to elevate one foot above base flood. We took that up to 18 inches. If you building on existing lots in the floodplain, we at least try to bring in some protection. No new lots are being made in the flood plain either. We try to keep development out of those areas instead of risking people and property.”

Although she admits that it’s a politically fraught concept, the county included a “climate change” portion in their natural resource map. The map illustrates what effect a hypothetical .5, 1 and 1.5 meter rise in sea level would have on the region. The report claims that even a .5 meter rise in sea level would put most of Leipsic, Little Creek and Bowers underwater. The entirety of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge would allegedly become bay bottom as well.

The county will continue to release data maps on a semi-weekly basis until the draft comprehensive plan is complete. Other upcoming subjects include transportation, community design and intergovernmental coordination.

Since feedback helps further inform the county’s recommendations and drafting process, Ms. Kiefer encourages all county residents to follow along as story maps are released and participate in upcoming 2018 comprehensive plan workshops and public hearings.

“We’re seeing interest in the comp plan, we’ve had more than 500 views on the parks and recreation story map, but we’d love more interaction from the public,” said Ms. Kiefer. “I’m pleased people are looking at it, and hopefully that means they’ll show up to the workshops and talk to us. It’s sad to adopt a new comp plan only to find out later that people don’t like what it says. Right now is a good time to get involved. It’s the best chance the public has to influence the plan.”

The planning department will brief Levy Court commissioners on the new comprehensive plan and get feedback from them on Tuesday night’s public meeting. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Kent County Administrative Complex on 555 Bay Road in Dover.

Updates and new story maps will be regularly posted on the department’s Facebook (@KCLCPlanning) and Twitter (@KCPlanning) accounts. Story maps can also be viewed at co.kent.de.us/planning-dept/planning/comprehensive-plan.aspx. To offer feedback directly, Ms. Kiefer says to call the planning department at (302) 744-2471. Workshop and hearing dates will be announced and advertised after the completion of the document’s first draft — Ms. Kiefer said they will likely take place in late October and early November.

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