Posts Tagged ‘Seaford Council’

Does what the people say matter?

July 16, 2009

Public hearings are an important part of the democratic process. During my adult life I have attended thousands of public hearings and seen a little of everything, including a reporter being physically removed from the premises for asking a question.

I’ve often wondered just how influential public hearings are.

For a period of 15 years, I was sitting on the other side of the table as a Seaford councilman and had to listen to testimony by members of the public.

Believe me, when a room is filled with people who are for or against (usually against) a particular issue or project it tends to get your attention, and it doesn’t matter what your opinion is.

As an observer and reporter of public hearings over the years I’ve noticed there is no rhyme or reason how elected officials will react to public input.

The recent Pelican Landing rezoning decision by Sussex County planning and zoning commissioners and county council is a perfect example. If you went by public opinion, there was not doubt the rezoning request would have been turned down. There were letters, petitions and plenty of residents who spoke out against the rezoning and proposed 75,000-square-foot shopping center along Route 24 near Love Creek bridge.

Yet, it was approved.

Lewes residents turned out to oppose a housing and commercial project along Gills Neck Road and Kings Highway. The public hearings were among the longest in county history because of the amount of testimony. County officials were inundated with letters, emails and phone calls from people opposing the projects.

The Governors housing project was approved, and the developer withdrew the rezoning request for The Village Centre, to reevaluate the scope of the project. It will resurface again this fall.

There are times when public input has played a pivotal role, or at least it appeared to play a role, in county officials’ decisions. One of the best examples involved a proposed project near Bridgeville.  Dozens of Bridgeville-area residents, with legal representation, turned out to oppose a Christian-based school for troubled teens in a rural area west of the town. County officials did not approve the project.

Just how much influence does public opinion play in land-use decisions? Although public officials mention it from time to time, I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t count for much.

Although public officials would deny it, most tend to be swayed more by what lawyers, engineers and developers have to say than what “the little people” have to say.

Members of the public get frustrated when they turn out to protest against a land-use application and it still gets approved. They tend to give up and not fight the system.

Several residents who live in the Trap Pond State Park area west of Laurel have told me on several occasions they are about to give up or have given up. Over the past two years, nearly 10 subdivisions have been approved in the rural, farming area.

Of course, on the other side of the coin, county officials are faced with the legal issue of following zoning and code regulations. Under current zoning, subdivisions are permitted in AR-1 zone districts, which cover most of the county.

If they deny a project without darn good reason, it will end up in court.