COMMENTARY: Delaware Coastal Zone Act revamp should be withdrawn

We are dismayed and disappointed that Rep. Osienski and Sen. Townsend have introduced HB 190 at the 11th hour in the General Assembly. Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act (CZA) is an iconic piece of legislation that has stood the test of time. Changes, tweaks or legislative reinterpretation to it deserve an open and thoughtful public conversation. Specifically, we are calling for more constructive and thoughtful conversation than will be afforded the public in the legislative committee meeting that will be held today in Dover. Their bill and their process to date fall short of their claim that “it would maintain the goals and spirit of the CZA.”

The goals and spirit that helped galvanize the passage of the CZA were clearly articulated by Russell Peterson in 1969 and are well worth repeating here:

Concern yourselves with the kind of state we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. We have two great opportunities right now, but we can’t capitalize on both of them. They are incompatible. One choice is to participate in one of the world’s rapid industrializations, build refineries and port facilities, and live with all the growth and benefits and problems they will bring.

The other choice is to leave most of the coast as it is, so people can enjoy the hunting, boating, fishing and peace and quiet, the quality of life the coast now affords us. I believe the second way is the better way. But let’s have a statewide discussion of the choices.

Though the choices now may not be as stark as they were back in 1969, there are many negative consequences to moving forward with the passage of HB 190 without an inclusive and transparent discussion of the need for the changes that the bill’s authors claim. Osienski and Townsend claim that 14 sites in the coastal zone that are identified in their bill are currently not being cleaned up and are abandoned and remain polluted.

Fact: Nine of the 14 sites are currently in the process of being cleaned up. In most cases, this will allow for reuse for numerous uses currently allowed under the existing CZA. The other five sites are still operating facilities. DNREC has not presented any evidence to the public that the environmental remediation at any of these sites is substandard or deficient.

Osienski and Townsend claim that their bill will require these 14 sites to meet a very high threshold of planning, remediation, and regulatory control.

Fact: History does not support this claim. DNREC, the agency tasked with implementing their bill, has a checkered history when it comes to regulatory control. The CZA was law in 1970, and it took DNREC 27 years to promulgate regulations. Again, in 1998, when regulations were adopted, the required environmental indicators program that was agreed to by all stakeholders was never developed by DNREC. As was noted by one of the stakeholders in the process, while business received their flexibility the days the regulations were promulgated, the environmental indicators program was never developed (by DNREC).

Equally as troubling is the environmental impact analysis required in HB 190 for a conversion permit. Fact: Delaware has no regulatory standard for what an environmental impact statement or analysis should look like and what it should contain. The bill’s conversion permit is not an environmentally value-added provision or an improvement to the current administration of the CZA.

HB 190 is a seriously flawed bill that is suspect and does not honor the original intent or purpose of the CZA. The need and rationale for the bill, as articulated by Representative Osienski and Senator Townsend, is dubious and needs much more public input and expert vetting than an end-of-legislative-session committee hearing will allow.

The reasonable and responsible action to take on this bill is to have the authors withdraw it from consideration. In so doing, they and all Delawareans would be well served by committing to an initiative that includes a clear problem statement that identifies real issues that may exist with the CZA and a specific commitment to move forward with an open and transparent process that is inclusive of all stakeholders to address any actual problems.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Andrew T. Manus has worked 38 years in conservation as executive director of University of Delaware Sea Grant College Program, director of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, director of Conservation Programs for Ducks Unlimited Mid-Atlantic Office and as director of Conservation Programs for the Delaware Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. He resides in Clayton.

Roger L. Jones is the former Delaware state director and vice president of The Nature Conservancy. He lives in Hockessin.

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