Friday, March 20, 2015

Dear SuMo - Not in my backyard

Editor's note: Originally intended to be a quick email to thank Susan Monday for listening to my opinions on her show, I realized the email would make a great article.  I, as well as my faithful readers, know that a "quick email" is never quick and this one is no different.  Readers can listen to SuMo live, weekdays 10 am - noon and 1 pm - 3 pm. 

Over the last year or so, you have covered the "not in my backyard" conflicts Sussex County routinely engages in, engages in almost as a sport of some sorts. The debate inevitably comes down to the same theme from each side: traffic, pollution, public safety, quality of life versus the "gray wave" resistant to change and costing Sussex County jobs.

Really, I wish I were rich.  Every time I hear someone make the argument that a landowner has a right to do whatever he/she wants with his/her private property, I would buy a nearby property to that person's house and see how quickly they would change their tune when they learn what my plans for my property are.

One argument that everyone seems to agree on is the roads in Sussex County are too congested now and would only get worse as more development continues.  One side wants to put a stop to the congestion and the other side wants everyone to get used to the congestion that surely will get worse as development continues.  I have to ask: what are the local and state politicians doing today and have projected to do in the future to fix the roads to accommodate more growth? 

No, I don't think Sussex County missed the boat long ago and there's really no room to make bigger roads.  There's always room...even if that means designating areas as eminent domain and buying out the properties at fair market value to make the expansions that are needed.  Perhaps your local politicians don't like that idea because it would mean a big initial investment for the county and a loss of property taxes - better to pack the businesses and residents like sardines than invest in sustainable growth for the future.

Sustainable growth, there's a term I never hear mentioned in these "not in my backyard" debates.  I used Kent County, MD as an example of a county with a comprehensive growth plan that works.  Their plan spells out what quality of life issues they strive to preserve, how they will allow growth (specifically, a controlled growth philosophy), and how they will invest in existing businesses, specifically Mom and Pop businesses, to preserve the rural, hometown quality of life.  An example from their plan:

Strategy: Assist in the growth of existing small business
The Planning Commission will identify a contact
person within the Department of Planning and
Zoning to assist existing employers through the
subdivision and building permit process. The
County’s Economic Development Office will assist
such businesses through the transition from homebased
business into the larger business community.
Looking at Sussex County's comprehensive plan, I could find no comparable business growth plan targeted specifically for locally owned and operated businesses.   In fact, as I read both plans, two striking differences slapped me in the face.  First, Kent County's plan had very specific goals and objectives with specific courses of actions to meet those goals and objectives whereas Sussex County's plan was more generalized and almost read as a "we want" list than an actual plan.  Second, Kent County's plan talked about where they are at now and will be in the next twenty years whereas Sussex County's plan talked a lot about all the emails and public meetings that were held since the last five-year update.

You may be wondering why I pointed out Kent County's goal to assist Mom and Pop businesses.  Kent County politicians note in the plan that the largest growth in jobs has been in the service industry and recognize that many of these jobs are traditionally low paying jobs.  They also note that Kent County loses many young, talented residents as they leave the County in search of better paying jobs elsewhere.  One gets the sense that the local politicians care about all of their residents and the best way to keep their residents is help them develop their own business where their efforts determine their income instead of waiting for someone to move, quit, retire, or die to be able to move up to a higher paying position in a retail or other service-orientated business.  One also gets a sense that Kent County's politicians understand the concept of the keep-it-local movement, a concept many tout, but few appear to actually support.

The keep-it-local concept is something Sussex County tends to overlook, but does address another complaint those who support growth often bring up - jobs.  I could write a book on why big development projects are harmful to the local economy, but my fingers are getting tired.  How leaky is your local economy is an article I wrote that might begin to explain why the touted Overbrook Town Center may not be all that it is cracked up to be and the oft repeated argument that it will bring much needed jobs to the area may be nothing more than empty or misguided rhetoric, depending on who's using the argument.  If you want more precise studies and have the time, here's a comprehensive list on the impact of big box stores and what a project like the Overbrook Town Center may really mean for Sussex County.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on one's perspective), Sussex County's comprehensive plan makes it clear that property rights are paramount to anything residents of the county may want.  Here's a sobering thought: Sussex County stands to lose 114 acres of land to place a mega-shopping complex of mostly national box stores to bring in mostly below $15 per hour jobs (the federally defined poverty level for a family of four) so that the local economy gets to keep $13 of every $100 spent at this proposed shopping center.  As a tourist destination built on a tourist economy, maybe some would consider that a good investment.  On the other hand, as the explosive growth Sussex County is experiencing is allowed to continue unchecked and without the investments in much needed infrastructure, Sussex County will hit a breaking point and other, better planned beach destinations will become the new tourist destinations.  Then what will Sussex County have?  A lot of empty retail centers and not much else for the few full time residents who remained behind and the handful of tourists who may still come for the beaches and don't care about the shopping.

For the TL;DR folks:
Sussex County politicians love growth, but have little in plans to accommodate the growth.

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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