Commentary: A home and a job – The American Dream

After months of hearings and workshops the update of the Sussex County Comprehensive Plan nears final completion with a vote to approve this proposal to follow.

After the Planning and Zoning Commission, the land use experts in Sussex County, spent months providing their recommendations as to the new plan, the county council spent months rewriting the plan to come up with their ideas as to what this plan should be.

This basically new plan was submitted to the Office of the State Planning Coordination for comments by the state bureaucracy. Those comments were sent back to the council in a letter dated September 20, 2018, in what is known as the PLUS comments. It is my understanding that the council has replied to these comments and a final vote to approve is only days away. This plan will be our land use law for the next ten years. Any amendments to this plan, which has the force of law, will need to go through this same lengthy process that got us here in the first place.

Joe Conaway

But my intention in this article is not to criticize the plan, but to show where council and the plan have reached common ground with the economic issues that we face in Sussex County. My comments will focus first on Chapter 9, Economic Development, then on two issues that the plan has left unresolved.

In the Council’s plan, they create four Economic Development Goals, 11 objectives to be accomplished, and 42 strategies to accomplish all of this. A review of those goals, objectives and strategies shows that SEDAC helped develop 93 percent of them, including all of the goals and objectives and 38 of the 42 strategies. We would also support the other four strategies.

The council heard the voices of the smart growth people and those of us that would protect property rights, those of us who call for infrastructure improvements, those of us who want to see business expansion including the poultry industry, and those of us that understand that we can only preserve farmland by continuing to make farming profitable. The council is to be commended for including an economic plan that will lead to jobs for all of Sussex County.

Where the plan falls short is in the planning for the actual location of the lands that would be needed to create these new jobs and the expansion of our existing businesses. Great emphasis is placed on directing that growth to Western Sussex, where there is land and opportunity. SEDAC supports those efforts and we have a suggestion not only how to create them, but how to pay for them.

Back in the early 70s, the first Sussex County Council recognized that shovel ready sites did not exist in Sussex. Through a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Economic Development Administration and money form its own accounts, the County opened the Georgetown Airport and the Sussex County Industrial Park. I had the pleasure of welcoming the first businesses to the Park and opening the airport to commercial commuter services.

It’s time for the council to take another bold step and locate two industrial parks in the north and south areas of western or central Sussex County. Sites that are zoned and with infrastructure already in place will attract expanding and new businesses. How to pay for that in the absence of federal grants? I have a thought but before I suggest where we get the money, let me point out the second omission in the plan.

The new plan makes no provisions for the location of affordable housing throughout the county.

Just so we understand how affordable housing is defined in Sussex County, the county’s ordinance defines this type of housing as a house that costs less than $250,000. I would submit that $250,000 is a high number for most Sussex County residents to handle. In fact, a couple would need to make between $70,000 to $87,500 to afford a house priced at this level without some government or private contribution. For the record, the median income in Sussex County is $53,751.

Part of the problem with sites for affordable housing is the cost of the land and the resulting land development costs for that land. Both Bridgeville and Millsboro have innovative ordinances that help with infrastructure costs but I would like to suggest another way to help defray these costs that could benefit both industrial growth and affordable housing.

Because of great fiscal management by the county over a period of many years, the county now has a large surplus that has primarily accrued to them through the transfer tax. Government is not in the business of making money. Such large surpluses need to be used to pay down debt (Sussex has little or no General Fund Debt, I’m told), increase services to the people that will not increase taxes to continue them, or, and this should always be first in the mind of elected officials, give the money back to the people.

So, here’s how I solve all three problems:

To get funds for infrastructure improvements, earmark most of the millions collected in transfer tax, less those used for public safety, to fund a Sussex County Infrastructure Fund that would enable the county to reduce the cost of sewer and water improvements for both industrial and housing improvements. In fact, every tax or fee that is generated by growth should, in some percentage, be part of this new fund. Let growth pay for itself.

Second, eliminate or reduce the county’s share of the transfer tax (1.5 percent of the purchase price) on all homes that are sold for less than $250,000. The infrastructure fund will help reduce the cost of sewer and water, thus reducing the cost of a home.

Third, join with the electric, gas and broadband companies as partners in the development of these two new industrial parks with the understanding that they will recoup their investments when a new company locates in these parks. In addition, seek whatever Federal or State grants that are also available for this purpose.

Haven’t mentioned roads, the state has announced that they will spend one billion dollars over the next five years on transportation projects in Sussex. The county can show them where.

Now we in SEDAC know that there will be those in government and the public that will find all the reasons none of this will work. SO BE IT. But I remember the naysayers who said the Sussex County Industrial Park would never work, that the Airport would never open, that Heritage Shores would never be developed in Bridgeville, that Dupont would never leave Sussex, and that nobody would ever come to our beaches. I guess they were right.

Joe Conaway is chairman of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee.

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