February 7, 2003

The window is open for 'umbrella' civic organizations seeking New Castle County community planning grants. County Executive Tom Gordon told a meeting of their representatives that they have until Apr. 1 to apply for them.

The executive is authorized to distribute up to $250,000 during this fiscal year to help finance professional planning and related activities. Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, said it is expected that all of the authorized money will be given out or committed by the end of the year on June 30. Whether the program continues beyond that, he said, depends upon what Gordon asks for and County Council approves in the fiscal 2004 budget.

Announcement of the official start of the program, which was developed over the past several months, came on Feb. 6 during a wide-ranging discussion of several linked topics at Gordon's monthly meeting with the umbrellas. Baker distributed a concise set of program guidelines and a one-page application form to the group.

Talk at the meeting ran the gamut from municipal annexations, through the proposed county rental and tenant code to the size and conduct of County Council.

The planning grants, according to the guidelines are intended assist "unique and diverse communities that have previously established themselves apart from the common form of suburban development that characterizes much of the county."

County government previously has assisted, financially and otherwise, redevelopment planning efforts in a few places. Gordon used his discretionary fund to provide 'seed money' to the Claymont Renaissance.  A member of the land use department staff is spearheading a similar effort in Hockessin. The county also has had a role in the village-preservation effort in Centreville.

Administered by the department, which will actually handle the money and pay the bills for authorized activity, the grants will be available only to umbrella civic organizations. Those are basically confederations of civic associations in given areas.

The application process requires that the requesting organization hold what amounts to one or more public hearings about the proposed project and obtain approval through a vote of its general membership. "We want to make sure [the proposal] comes from the group and has community buy-in," Baker said.

The land use department has reviewing authority and is to work with the organization to define the scope of the project and determine whether there are reasonably available resources to complete it.

The department also will determine how the grants will be apportioned. Projects, however, will be presented to meetings of the umbrella group representatives and their views will be considered in that decision. Projects other than community development and redevelopment will be considered but assigned secondary priority, the guidelines say.

The grant program is viewed as an effort by the county to maintain the existing status of unincorporated areas which have established identities. They would acquire a large measure of control over redevelopment within the county government's regulatory and administrative structure without having to become separate municipalities.

The flip side of that, which also came up separately as a topic for discussion at the meeting, is annexation of adjacent land by existing municipalities. That is frequently done to permit new development apart from the requirements of the Unified Development Code. In the process, county government loses a portion of its real estate tax base.

As part of the 'Livable Delaware" initiative, there is an effort underway to develop state legislation to restrict annexation, which now requires only agreement by a majority of property owners in the affected area. A sole exception to that pertains to the city of Wilmington where, under state law, an annexation also requires agreement by County Council and the county executive.

Gordon suggested at the civic group meeting that, rather than change the law to give Wilmington the same latitude as other municipalities, the other municipalities should be bound by the same restriction as the city. He added that he does not oppose every annexation and actually favors "logical ones." As an example, he cited a couple made to straighten the city boundary in the Christina Riverfront development area.

City annexation could soon become significant in relation to the proposed Bank One data processing center on Governor Printz Boulevard just north of the city. The city owns the targeted property, although it is located beyond the city line. The major economic development project reportedly hinges in part on an effort to permit or prevent, depending on viewpoint, future annexation.

Gordon cautioned that the proposed county rental and tenant code, being drafted by a committee led by County Council president Christopher Coons, will not work unless it is aligned with a method to finance its enforcement. He urged civic representatives participating in the drafting process to oppose anything which exceeds enforcement resources.

As the process now stands, the key to enforcement is periodic inspection of rental properties to assure that they are up to building code standards as well as inspections whenever a new tenant comes in. Baker pointed out that the county's 12 code enforcement officers presently conduct about 6,000 inspections a year. That, he said, gives an indication of the personnel that would be necessary to oversee the 30,000 to 50,000 rental units in the county.

Gordon said the county needs a rental code, such as Wilmington and Newark have, but questioned whether extensive representation by apartment owners and related commercial interests on the drafting committee might prevent coming up with an effective county law. "Do you think they're going to pass [sic] anything that's going to work?" he quipped.

Daniel Bockover, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred asked support from other umbrella groups for a lobbying effort to seek repeal of the state law requiring the doubling of the present number of County Council districts in time for the 2004 election. "If we don't stop [implementation of] this law now, we never will. Once you get more Council members, you'll never roll [it] back," he said.

Gordon later said that he agrees with the official County Council position that Council be increased to nine members plus a president elected at large, instated of 12 plus a president as the law provides. Council presently has six members plus a president.

Bockover said that reapportionment to establish new Council districts. "You don't just cut [the present[ districts in half. It has to be done by population, not geography," he said.

Ken Murphy, president of the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association, said that not only the number of Council members but the way the perform their duty should be scrutinized. "Maybe there should have a job description," he said. "They get elected and we give them and office and an aide, but there are no minimal requirements for what they have to do to be a good Council person."

Patt Cannon, president of the Centreville Civic Association, said passing judgment on how they handle their job "is something we all can do at election time."

William Narcowich, president of the Civic League for New Castle County, questioned the efficiency of Council. He cited a recent meeting of Council's Executive Committee, which began about 20 minutes past its 3:30 p.m. announced starting time and ran until 7:45 p.m., with a 45-minute recess to conduct a scheduled Land Use Committee meeting. He questioned how much that cost in terms of the pay of members of the county's administrative staffs who had to be present and lawyers, business people and members of the public who came to hear about and speak to specific items on committee agendas.

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