County council alert for power grabs by state agencies
Sussex County Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin on May 24 offered county council members an update on pending and recent legislation before state legislators in the 2011 legislative session, asking for their guidance on some items before the session resumes in June.
Godwin referenced the former House Bills 101 and 102, which he said have since been consolidated into House Substitute 1 for HB101. The bill, he said, pertains to DelDOT’s authority to require certain traffic studies and force their recommendations to be put in place before some subdivisions are approved.
“It appears DelDOT wants to have more influence in development, to be able to circumvent your authority to approve subdivisions,” Godwin told council members.
He said HS1 for HB101 would require local jurisdictions to rewrite existing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with DelDOT because the new law would require DelDOT to “weigh in and approve subdivisions before you do,” and to rework the MOUs where they were in conflict with DelDOT’s new authority.
Godwin said both New Castle and Kent county officials are opposed to the bill.
HS1 for HB101 references “a greater emphasis on safety factors” from DelDOT, providing the agency with the “discretion to broaden any traffic study required in conjunction with an application, to help reduce future road congestion and maintenance in conjunction with a project, and provides data the local jurisdiction should use in making decisions,” Godwin said.
“I think you’re probably opposed, but I don’t want to speak for you,” Godwin told the council on Tuesday.
Councilwoman Joan Deaver said she may not, in fact, be opposed to the legislation, but she wanted more time to review it in depth.
“I’m not opposed to it at this time,” she said. “We haven’t been getting much cooperation from DelDOT. This could be it, but I don’t know that this is how we want it,” she added.
“That’s why I want you to review it carefully,” Godwin replied.
Deaver said she thinks the opposition from New Castle and Kent county officials may be a case of apples and oranges.
“We have no adequate-public-facilities ordinance at all,” she pointed out. “That makes us different from the other two counties.”
Flooding standards legislation controversial
Godwin likewise asked the council for direction on Senate Bill 64, which would authorize DNREC to adopt guidance and minimum standards “to minimize risks from flooding,” utilizing input from a stakeholder advisory group.
He said that, during a committee hearing on SB 64, discussion had focused on a study group, which Godwin noted don’t traditionally work quickly.
“I don’t think anything will happen between now and the end of June, but this session will carry over to next year,” Godwin noted, as the two-year session that ends in June will permit unfinished business to be taken back up in January of 2012.
“Sussex County would likely be one of stakeholders,” Godwin added, saying that the group would likely study and look at possible guidelines for jurisdictions to adopt or for addition to state code.
Godwin particularly noted that SB 64, as introduced, would allow the DNREC Secretary “to make judgment calls without consulting the jurisdictions” – an emergency power, he replied to Deaver’s inquiry about the circumstances under which such powers would be available.
That didn’t sound entirely bad to Deaver, who has been seeking help with flooding problems in her district – particularly along the Route 24 corridor.
“All along the bay, we have people who we don’t know if we could get them evacuated,” she said. “We have people who are living in perilous situations. Somebody has to have the authority to deal with that in an emergency. There are breaches open on the bay that need to be closed,” she emphasized, noting that a complicating factor was concerns about moving sand to close such breaches and the impact that might have on local bird populations.
But Councilman Vance Phillips said he was concerned that the maneuvers contained in SB 64 might be an oblique power grab by state authorities.
“We are hearing more and more concerns about this,” Phillips said. “Some people think this is a roundabout way to undermine our authority.”
Godwin said he had been hearing similar concerns about the bill.
“Someone said it was like the state resource map situation we went through a few years ago,” Godwin put in.
“It’s not a good bill,” added Councilman Sam Wilson. “It might be good bill where Joan lives, but not somewhere else. It needs to be more specific. If Broadkill wants this, Broadkill can have it.”
Referencing that idea of locale-specific applications for such a law, Godwin said the state could perhaps apply “watershed considerations” to the idea. “That would deal with a lot of those issues.”
“It goes back to the overlay maps,” Phillips noted, saying that the courts had held that the overlays should not be created unless each individual property owner was considered. “This is a broad brush stroke to undermine local land-use authority,” he asserted.
“We’ve got to find a way to help people,” Deaver countered. “We have farmland being ruined by saltwater coming in from the bay. … The road to Primehook Beach is submerged in a bad storm. … These breeches have to be closed. Maybe we can direct it to the bay area, but we need to do something.”
Godwin asked for the council to provide him with direction on what position to take on the legislation.
Deaver asks for more state police coverage
Finally, Deaver asked whether Godwin could speak to state officials about increasing the number of Delaware State Police troopers serving Sussex County.
“We’re having a problem with burglaries in my district,” Deaver noted, pointing to an increase in population in Sussex while New Castle County has seen a decrease in its population. The population shift to the south has been substantial enough to make significant redistricting a likely outcome.
“Can we get them to bring more troopers down here?” she asked. “People are getting their homes broken into during the day, whether they’re there or not.”
Wilson said he didn’t think the answer to the problem was more police in Sussex County.
“You can’t get enough police,” he said. “You could have people standing on every street corner, and it wouldn’t prevent it.
“We need to get a handle on this issue of morality,” Wilson said of what he believes is the cause of the apparent increase in crime in the area. “Our morals in our country are in trouble. Our legislators have no morals.”
Regardless of the causes of the problem, Deaver said she felt the county deserved more DSP coverage.
“We haven’t increased the number of troopers for many years,” she said. “We had 40, and we still have 40.”
Council President Michael Vincent asked County Administrator David Baker to set up a meeting between himself, Baker and DSP officials to discuss Deaver’s concerns.
Also on May 24:
• Godwin reported that HB 31, which the county asked to have introduced in order to change the county’s property tax due date to be closer to its tax billing date, was signed into law on April 14.
• Godwin reported that HB60 – known as “the dog bill” – had been tabled in the state agriculture committee on May 11. The County had opposed the bill, Godwin said, because it “was adding another layer of cost onto what is already an unfunded mandate.” He said it appeared there was not much support for the bill, which specifies tethering limitations and other conditions impacting dogs.
• Godwin reported that the County now has sponsors to introduce a bill he said is designed to address the situation in which the County would have to retrain its assessors as appraisers. He said the legislation has support from the state’s other two counties and would likely see work when the legislature reconvenes in June.
• Godwin reported that Senate Bill 26 had passed both chambers of the legislature. The bill, which relates to nutrient management on farm operations, was supported by the Secretary of Agriculture and the state’s Farm Bureau.
Godwin said Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee had supported the bill because it “structures more properly the chain of command for this issue and aligns with the federal requirements.” The bill had not yet been signed into law as of May 24, but there was no indication it would not be.