SEDAC proposes extensions for projects that might be abandoned
After hearing from Patti Grimes, Joe Conoway and Rob Ryder of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC) at their council meeting this Tuesday, Sussex County Council members agreed that the committee should work with county employees to come up with some type of formal ordinance that would permit an extension on county permits, to provide relief to developers and to “prevent abandonment” of projects that might not have the finances to reach completion.
Grimes recommended a one-year extension for subdivisions, conditional uses and residential planned communities, and referenced four neighboring states that have come up with similar regulations – some with extensions of up to five years.
“It would eliminate unnecessary development costs and costs with re-permitting, and also provide some predictably for when the economy does turn around,” said Grimes.
“It’s not a developer relief situation as much as an entire community,” said Conoway, who is Bridgeville’s mayor.
With contracts that have “gone down” in Bridgeville, he said, farmers are left with rezoned land at development-level taxes rather than at their original assessed value based on agricultural use. He said the town has actually downzoned land to have an agricultural overlay. He also added that it was not a zoning issue, but rather one of timing and expense.
“It’s five years from the beginning of the application to the final approval, to think about going back again…” he began.
“Farmers, bankers, small businesses – they are all at a loss as to what to do with the economy,” Conoway continued. “A lot of projects that I am aware of have been devastated. You cannot borrow money today, you cannot. It’s that simple.”
“It just makes sense to protect base industries,” added Grimes, naming agriculture and tourism as specifically of concern.
County Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank said they were talking about 50 projects that would be impacted by such a proposal, including subdivisions, conditional uses and residential planned communities (RPCs).
“It does sound like a lot,” said Councilman George Cole. “But there is no way government is going to turn this around. It’s about location and price,” he added, mentioning that many of the planned developments are in “bad locations, and they paid too much for them.”
“Do we go back?” he continued. “What about all the people we sunsetted? Is that fair?”
Cole also questioned the request for one year extensions and the motives of Grimes and Conaway in recommending them. “One year is nothing. And you are in real estate. It seems as if you are looking out for your own; 1,600 lots – there’s no way the market can handle that, and no way the market can handle 50 subdivisions in 10 years,” he continued. “I know projects that they got it approved and then sat back and didn’t spend a dollar.”
Cole acknowledged that he has a background in real estate, as well, and emphasized the importance of the market. He asked what else SEDAC was doing throughout the county in other industries, and about creating some type of standards for a developer extension.
“Yes, my past has been real estate,” said Grimes, who previously worked for Carl M. Freeman Companies but noted on Tuesday her time more recently working for the non-profit Carl Freeman and Joshua Freeman foundations. “We have folks from the agricultural industry, from manufacturing, etc.,” she said of the committee.
Describing what else SEDAC is doing, she said they had recently toured Wallops Island, Va., and that companies from Bridgeville and Selbyville are working on projects there.
Council President Michael Vincent then asked Ryder to be an objective voice.
Ryder said that, while he was not prepared with notes to speak, “We do have a number of other initiatives, but this is one idea that we came up with that is tangible. This was just a suggestion, there are lots of intricacies that you guys would have to deal with. We just wanted to bring it to you.”
“I’m not too sympathetic to the guy who has done nothing,” said Cole. “Too much [inventory in the real estate market] is not good. And we’ve got too much. If somebody came up with some criteria, we’d have something to talk about.”
He also said, in response to Conaway’s comment about wanting to eliminate some work for the council, which is already able to grant permit extensions, “I wouldn’t mind a case-by-case basis, but if we do it across the board, that’s government being irresponsible. We’re not overworked. Send it to us.”
Councilman Vance Phillips said government doesn’t always have the answers. Because of the market, he asserted, “Many of these projects will simply go away,” but he added that he was “disappointed” that an organization such as SEDAC was being “berated” by a council member. “The least we can do introduce an ordinance and have a public hearing,” Phillips said.
Cole later responded to Phillips’ reference to him “berating” SEDAC members and defended himself by saying, “I was trying to ask the good tough, questions. I had no intent to belittle anything you are doing.” Conaway joked that he had “come to expect it” from Cole, but added, “You didn’t belittle.”
Grimes said the recommendations would give the county an objective process, and, she said, both she and Conaway agreed that the marketplace would naturally “shake out” projects that were never viable to begin with.
“But for us to not ask the county to do something... there’s got to be a starting place to provide some relief,” she said.
The Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC) has the mission of “leveraging the experience, intellect and creativity of the Sussex County community to inform, develop, recommend and communicate strategies for creating sustainable economic prosperity.” Members include citizens from the business, education and government sectors.