Sussex County, DelDOT sign off on new transportation agreement

Sussex County and Delaware Department of Transportation officials during Tuesday’s County Council meeting signed an updated memorandum of understanding/transportation agreement. Sussex County Council President Michael H. Vincent signs the document, while Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Wheatley and DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan wait their turns. (Submitted photo)

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County and Delaware transportation leaders have reached a new understanding when it comes to development approvals and traffic planning in the First State’s fastest-growing locale.

At its Tuesday meeting, Sussex County Council approved an updated memorandum of understanding with the Delaware Department of Transportation that officials of both entities hope will improve the coordination and planning of land development in southern Delaware in the years to come.

Following the vote, Sussex County Council President Michael H. Vincent, DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan and others signed the agreement to formalize the document.

The agreement is the first major update to a previous pact signed by both parties in the late 1980s and serves as a guide to how the county, which has land-use authority, and DelDOT, the state agency responsible for road planning, work together to exchange information and address traffic issues that come with new development.

Much has changed in Sussex County in the 32-year span since the last agreement, and officials said the latest 10-page accord is reflective of the development complexities — and transportation challenges brought on by growth — that are present in the county, particularly in eastern Sussex.

“So much has changed in Sussex County since this original document was drafted and approved, so it’s important that given the influx of people and traffic and new housing today that we have an up-to-date road map that charts us forward for development and the transportation planning that will be needed in the decade ahead,” said Sussex County Council Vice President Irwin “I.G.” Burton III, whose district includes the greater Lewes-Milton area, where some of the most significant growth has occurred.

“Certainly, there’s no magic pill to swallow and cure all our traffic ills, but this will go a long way to better defining roles, laying out the process and putting the county and state at the table, together, rather than in separate silos, to look at our collective challenges and work to come up with solutions that benefit the public. Ultimately, this is a communication tool,” he said.

Among some of the most significant changes in the new agreement:
• DelDOT will provide Sussex County relevant information, including traffic data, before any public hearings occur, so that it can be more readily available and useful to the public, developers and county decision-makers in real time.
• DelDOT will recommend conditions of approval related to road and traffic issues for the county’s consideration. Such proposed conditions could include project phasing tied to the timing of roadway improvements to minimize the effects of new development.
• Sussex County and DelDOT pledge to maintain, where possible, a minimum level service grade of “D” for roadways and intersections, to ensure traffic flows are not adversely affected by new development. In instances when the grade is at or could fall below “D,” DelDOT will require traffic improvements, so that the existing level of service is not worsened by the new project.
• All parties will have clearer definitions and expectations for different types, sizes and traffic impacts of projects.

“This agreement really is about better planning, better coordination and better definitions, all in the hopes of attaining better outcomes,” Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said, noting that the update was partially born out of the county’s comprehensive plan update in 2018.

Prior to council’s unanimous support, 5th District Councilman John Rieley emphasized that this MOU is not the answer to all issues but enhances communication channels.

“I have had an overwhelming number of emails come in in the last few days. I guess people realized we were getting ready to vote on this, and there seems to be a perception that this is the ‘silver bullet’ that is going to fix everything. So it’s a misperception,” said Councilman Rieley. “But it is an improvement in the communication process. And it will help us with making better decisions, I think, as we are able to get complete information prior to making those decisions.”

Councilman Vincent agreed the agreement is not a cure-all.

“I agree with Mr. Rieley. It isn’t the silver bullet. It doesn’t answer every question … ,” he said. “But it is certainly an improvement of what we have today. Hopefully, it will give us information earlier, so we can make good, sound decisions based on the information.”

Secretary Cohan offered her appreciation and thanks to members of Sussex County Council for their approval of the latest agreement, saying it’s yet another positive indicator of the improved relationship between the county and state.

“I am very happy with council’s approval of the new MOU between the county and DelDOT,” she said. “We have worked closely to address issues and make improvements from the previous MOU that will better guide the development-review and approval process going forward. I am grateful to the council and County Administrator Todd Lawson for their partnership as we continue to work to address infrastructure needs across Sussex County.”

To view the agreement, visit sussexcountyde.gov/sussex-county-deldot-initiatives.