More questions than answers surround growth in the area

By Lynn R. Parks

Cooperative Extension agent Bill McGowan told the nearly 80 people at last week's town meeting on growth sponsored by the Seaford chapter of the American Association of University Women that there are about a million potential building lots still undeveloped in Sussex County. And most of them are on the western side of the county. "There are 1,200 people per square mile in New Castle County, but only 150 people per square mile in Sussex," he said. "There is a lot of potential for growth here." But that potential, if not managed, could result in unplanned development that no one is happy with. McGowan, who lives in Laurel, compared the county's situation with that of a frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. When the water is heated gradually, the frog does not notice and stays put, eventually being boiled to death. "If you don't pay attention, you might find yourselves in boiling water," McGowan said. "The questions are going to come: What kind of growth do you want? Where do you want it? Who will pay for it? And who will decide the answers to all these questions?" McGowan was one of four speakers at the forum, held Wednesday evening in the auditorium at Central Elementary School. County administrator Bob Stickels, Connie Holland, director of the State Office of Planning, and Amy Walls, economic development manager for the city of Seaford, also made presentations. "In the game of growth, they are on the varsity," moderator Ron MacArthur said in introducing the participants. "They are playing first string every day." Jenny Werner, AAUW program chairwoman, said that the forum was designed to get people thinking about the future of the county. "We wanted to have this in order to educate, to encourage dialog and to promote community involvement," she said. "We wanted to spur people to become actively involved, to go to meetings or volunteer with an organization where they can do the most good." The panelists agreed that for Sussex County to continue as we know it, its agriculture industry must remain healthy. "We have land-use options right now," said Connie Holland, director of the State Office of Planning. "But we won't have those options if we don't work to keep agriculture viable." Stickels said that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state as well as in the county. State-wide, with 530,000 acres in farmland, ag production value per acre is $1,944, the highest in the United States. Delaware ranks second after California in net farm income, $152,083 per farm, he said. Even so, farmers are facing a difficult time, said McGowan. "With land costing $30,000 an acre, you don't grow cereal," he said. Farmers might find themselves having to grow niche products that demand higher prices, he said. At the same time, "society might have to make some hard choices," he added. "We are going to have to put the profit back in agriculture," perhaps compensating farmers for the environmental benefits they provide, such as carbon banking - keeping carbon dioxide on earth, in plants, and preventing it from going into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change - and water recycling.

"That means recognizing and paying for the value of maintaining our lands," McGowan said. Walls told the audience that since 1920, the number of Delaware acres in agriculture production has "declined dramatically." At the same time, population numbers have increased, and are expected to continue to do so: By 2025, an additional 32,000 people 65 and older are expected to live in Sussex County, as well as an additional 12,600 people between 55 and 64. Walls said that that increasing population is driving housing prices to unheard of levels. Last year, the median selling price of a Seaford home was $193,000 and of a Laurel home, $181,824. In Sussex County, the average value of the nearly 4,000 building permits issued in 2005 was $449,000, Stickels said. At the same time, salaries are staying stagnant. The average Sussex County salary in 2004 was $29,000, "incredible low," Walls said. "There is a big disconnect between what we can afford and what housing costs," she said. Stickels described the county's program to provide moderately-priced housing for young professionals. Developers that opt to participate in the program are required to commit at least 15 percent of their total units for moderate income households, defined as 80 to 125 percent of the county's median income. In return, the developer can build up to 30 percent more units on an acre than would normally be allowed. The county is accepting applications for the program through April 10. In addition, the county has managed $3.4 million from the federal Community Development Block Grant program for housing rehabilitation since 1995, Stickels said. In the last two years, the Sussex County Council has handed out $200,000 to pay for emergency housing projects for residents. McGowan told the audience that high-density housing is a better way to build to conserve land and to allow for public transit. "Do not be afraid of the word 'density,'" he said. "We need density. With one-acre yards, the only person who benefits is John Deere." "It is not density that we hate," Holland added. "It is having every house have tan siding with a gray roof." Planning good high-density communities avoids that, Holland and McGowan said. Holland and Stickels urged people in the audience to become involved in local government. "Please attend comprehensive plan planning meetings," Holland said. Each municipality as well as the county is required to have a comprehensive plan, updated every five years. "You want to get involved," Stickels added. "Tell the council what you want it the county to look like. In the next 10 years, growth in the county will look very different from how it has looked in the last 10 years." McGowan said after the forum that he would have liked to have seen more audience participation in the event: The speakers took up nearly all of the allotted 90 minutes. But he added that such forums are good ideas. "It's all about talk, networking and building support," he said. "Any time you can put folks in a room and talk about the future, things will start to happen."

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