Archive for September, 2009

Our heart and soul is down on the farm

September 21, 2009
A Century Farm near Lewes.

A Century Farm near Lewes.

What really makes up the Heart and Soul of Sussex County?

Bill McGowan and his group at the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension have been trying to come with the answer to that question for the past two years.

They have come up with great quotes, anecdotes and photographs as they try to define Sussex County.

There is no doubt in my mind what is the heart and soul Sussex County. All one needs to do is take a ride along any back road and it becomes obvious.

Farming is the backbone, foundation and lifeblood of the county – end of story.

When you live in the same place for more than 25 or 30 years, you begin to take our farming heritage for granted.

Although people who rarely get out of the rat race around Route 1 would disagree, for the most part, Sussex is a pastoral county dotted with farms. To really appreciate the rural nature of the county, take a bicycle ride or road trip on any back road.

And the further you get to the middle and west of the county, the bigger the farm fields get. Look at a Sussex County map.

The bad news is that farmland is disappearing and those small, white clapboard farmhouses that define the landscape are disappearing with it.

According to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture data from 2007, Sussex County is losing farmland at a rate of about 5 percent per year, or about 2,300 acres annually. The county still has nearly 270,000 acres of farmland, which is more than half of the state’s 510,000 acres.

More than half of that total, about 150,000 acres, is in the Nanticoke Watershed in western Sussex County. Close to half of all land in the watershed, which is centered around the City of Seaford, is farmland.

Circle off limits to Lewes protesters

September 18, 2009

Prior to the Thursday, Sept. 10, Sussex County Planning and Zoning public hearing on the Village Centre rezoning request, several Lewes residents planned a protest on The Circle to draw attention to their opposition to the application.

As the protesters, holding up their signs in a pouring rain about 5 p.m., assembled along the curb around The Circle, Georgetown Town Manager Gene Dvornick greeted them.

He explained to the group they weren’t permitted to gather on The Circle because irrigation work was taking place. A yellow rope tied to light posts encircled the circle warning people to stay away.

The Lewes group was asked to take their protest to the sidewalks in front of the administration building, as long as pedestrian access was not denied.

During this discussion, Georgetown Mayor Ed Lambden and two Georgetown police officers also appeared. The mayor must have just come from work because he was still in his U.S. Postal Service uniform.

Some of the Lewes protesters got into rather long discussions with the officers, but eventually all moved off The Circle. That group must have been reliving their days of taking it to “the man.”

Although there has been some controversy about other crowd estimates in the news lately, this group of protesters was easy to count and numbered about 30. What was the average age of the protesters? Let’s say most qualified for Social Security several years ago.

I guess the Georgetown officials were expecting a gang of Lewes hooligans and were prepared for a large-scale protest.

To be honest, it seemed a little surreal to see the highest-ranking officials in Georgetown and two police officers watching over a small group of mostly senior citizens huddled together in the rain holding up signs.

John Mateyko, organizer of the Lewes protesters, said the city manager told him “you can’t be here.” He said the group did not have a permit, but one is not needed in a public area like The Circle.

“We had a personality breakdown, and I decided not to push it,” Mateyko said.

And what about the closing of The Circle, the most logical of all places to voice your opinion in Sussex County?

After some investigative digging, I uncovered some information in the Georgetown Town Council minutes that irrigation work was scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 10. According to the minutes, pedestrians were to be kept off The Circle between noon and 2 p.m. for an irrigation inspection. Maybe the inspection went a little longer than anticipated.

The Lewes groups have planned another protest starting at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, prior to the county council public hearing. One can only wonder if more work will be taking place on The Circle.

Photo of the week

September 15, 2009
Perfect time for a sail.

Perfect time for a sail.

Hearing process needs streamlining

September 11, 2009

Many members of the public who attended a planning and zoning hearing Aug. 27 on a request by Rick Banning to build an apartment complex on an 18-acre parcel off Plantation Road left the building in a huff.

Those who stuck around for the marathon hearing were critical of the commission and particularly of Chairman Bob Wheatley.

Wheatley, who without saying it, said he had heard enough, cut off those who spoke near the end of the 4-hour hearing.

It was a little out of character for Wheatley, who usually goes out of his way to make sure everyone has time to speak his or her mind.

Residents couldn’t understand why they were given time limits while the applicant was not. It’s a legitimate complaint.

On a complex application like this one, the applicant’s presentation can take as long as two hours or longer, which includes time for questions by commission members.

After two hours of anything, a person’s patience and attention span is tested to the maximum. And in this particular hearing, the public didn’t have a chance to speak until around 8 p.m.

As speaker after speaker took the podium, time ticked away. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. before the “heavy hitters” got up to speak. Those who had the most to say, and who had prepared the most, had the least amount of time to talk. There is a lesson to be learned here by all of you preparing to testify in a public hearing – fire the big guns early.

That’s not to say the county’s current public hearing system doesn’t need some work. Although it’s great that people have the chance to address officials in person, restraint should be placed on the applicants. Some people are convinced they go on and on and on for a reason – to wear down the opposition.

I can’t see where a time limit of 45 minutes or one hour would hurt any applicant’s chances of getting their message across to planning zoning or county council. Perhaps questions from the commission and council should come after the public has the opportunity to speak.

During another marathon public hearing Sept. 10 on a rezoning request in Lewes, Commissioner Mike Johnson did just that. He reserved his comments and questions to the end of the meeting so the public could speak before the hour got too late. The hearing lasted almost 6 hours.

And likewise, public testimony should be limited to 10 or 15 minutes at the most. Although many would disagree, I concur that the chairman of the commission should have the right to cut people off when they are being redundant.

Streamlining the process would help both sides.

Putting time limits on free speech is a slippery slope, and in most cases I would be an advocate for no limits. But in the case of Sussex County public hearings, the “public” is getting pushed to the rear of the bus and is forced to endure way too much chitchat before it gets a chance to talk.

Commission attorney Vince Robertson said before the start of the Sept. 10 hearing that the chairman can limit what the applicants say as well as how long the speakers talk. It’s rare that applicants are told to speed it up, although it does happen.

He also noted that letters and emails submitted to county officials as part of the record carry as much weight as spoken testimony. There is another lesson for those interested in getting their message heard – write a letter and you won’t have to endure the pain of sitting through a long public hearing.
That is unless you want to learn every little detail about the application.

Rest in peace Officer Spicer

September 9, 2009
Georgetown pays its last respects.

Georgetown pays its last respects.

At odds over meetings

September 7, 2009

Maverick Sussex County Councilwoman Joan Deaver is upsetting the tried-and true applecart at every turn. It seems she can’t stay out of the fire or the frying pan or even hot water by putting those good ole boy traditions to the test.
Her newest battle involves one about meetings and which ones, if any, are off limits.

As the councilwoman in the district with some of the most controversial land-use applications, she feels she needs to get out and gather as much information as possible.

That might require attending community meetings, meeting with small groups of constituents or attending planning and zoning commission meetings. She has attended those meetings in the past, including an Aug. 27 planning and zoning meeting and an Aug. 31 community meeting in Lewes.

But according to Council President Vance Phillips, she is walking an extremely fine line. Phillips says there is a long-standing policy that county council members do not attend planning and zoning meetings. And Deaver said county attorney Everett Moore told her it would be better to stay away from community meetings that deal with pending applications.

To date, Phillips has not produced the policy.

He has said several times that by attending planning and zoning meetings, council members could jeopardize their participation in council hearings.
So Deaver says she will continue to attend as many meetings as possible, place land-use matters on her website and keep constituents informed via email. She feels it’s part of her job to keep informed and to inform.

Deaver said a policy restricting council members from attending public meetings would be wrong to begin with.

There is no doubt the two council members do not see eye-to-eye on many topics, and this issue has only helped to widen the divide a little more.

Deaver wants the oft-cited policy brought into the light of day for all to see. Phillips says it’s under review by county legal staff.

Let’s hope there is a quick resolution so council can focus on the important business of running the county.