September 5, 2001

Not even the longest long-timer still uses it with any degree of regularity, but when County Council adopts an updated comprehensive plan next year it will officially retire the once ubiquitous designation -- rural New Castle County.

"Let's be frank: Northern New Castle County is largely an unincorporated  city," the plan will declare.

"It is hard to tell the difference between the city [of Wilmington] and [surrounding] New Castle County," said Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, as he publicly unveiled the proposed new plan, still in early draft form, at a meeting of Council's land use committee on Sept. 4. The draft will be the subject of soon-to-be-scheduled public hearings and, after revisions, given to Council in early January. State law requires county comprehensive plans to be updated every five years and March will be the fifth anniversary of adoption of the present plan.

The 1997 plan led, at least indirectly, to adoption two years later of the county's Unified Development Code.

As indicated by Baker in an earlier interview with Delaforum, the updated plan will answer in the negative the question of whether the county has run out of room to accommodate expected economic growth.

Using Population Consortium data, it estimates that 38,800 new jobs will be added to the existing 250,000 by 2020. Accommodating the jobs, Baker said, will require about 1,000 acres, which is less than a fourth of the 4,500 acres presently zoned for commercial development but unused. His conclusion: "There is adequate land for business development" without the necessity for any rezoning.

Similarly, there is adequate land designated for residential development to provide housing for the people who will hold those jobs. "There is a good supply of housing ... with median price about 8% lower than the median housing cost in the region," he said.

The Unified Development Code, he said, provides "a variety of [residential] development options" that were not available under the former zoning code. "We're a lot more flexible today than we were before," he said.

Since the new code went into place three years ago, 90% of building permits have been issued for projects in areas designated for development. "That means that we are 90% in line with the [present comprehensive] plan," Baker said.

That will permit sufficient building to meet foreseeable housing needs without encroaching on the existing 43,000 acres of protected open space.

On the other hand, the expected greater population density will bring on increased demand for urban-type services. Moreover, since the largest amount of development will occur south of the U.S. Route 40 corridor, they will have to be provided on a larger geographic scale than in the past.

While the plan appears to point to a scenario of manageable growth and what Baker called "development predictability," it also raises some significant issues that will have to be dealt with in the near future.

Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, said an example is determining who has responsibility for maintaining sidewalks. While Delaware Department of Transportation should have that responsibility since virtually all the walks lie within its rights-of-way, she said that state agency is attempting, through General Assembly action, to shift the burden to the county. To avoid that, she called on County Council to amend the development code to change its present requirement for sidewalks to a more general statement that sidewalks "may be required." That verbage would throw the ball back into DelDOT's court because that agency, rather than the county, would then be doing the requiring, she explained.

"We don't want it to be our responsibility to tell people they have to pay for [repairing] their sidewalks," said Councilwoman Karen Venezky.

A similar questions exists with bicycle and pedestrian paths now being constructed. "Everybody loves greenways, but who's going to operate and maintain them? Who's going to repair them 10 years from now?" Freebery said.

Drainage is yet another potential problem. Although the new code addresses that, it does not provide for enforcement of those provisions. And, since present conditions have been brought about by past development, a matter of equitable treatment exists.

"That's our agenda for the next five years: How do we handle these really thorny issues?" Baker said.

Council President Christopher Coons agreed that, as an initial step, he will schedule a Council 'retreat' to lay out the issues and begin to establish priorities.

2001. All rights reserved.

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