News

July 9, 2003

County Council put in a busy evening changing the way large residential communities are designed, giving a green light to a major expansion of the state's premier hospital and telling the state legislature to bug off from trying to force a change in the way county government is run.

Before unanimously voting to require that half of the land in any subdivision of 50 acres or more be set aside as open space and half of that dedicated to preservation of natural resources and elements, the lawmakers settled the one remaining issue in the nearly year-long process of drafting the most significant change to the signature Unified Development Code since that law was enacted at the end of 1997.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky said the new 'environment first' ordinance will require that developers and planners give initial priority to drawing up a "sustainable management plan" for natural features instead of dealing with them, if at all, as an afterthought. "We don't know yet the full impact of preserving these open spaces," she said, adding that the overall result cannot help but be beneficial to the present and future generations.

While no one on Council or in the audience spoke anything but praise for the pending ordinance, there was sharp division  over an issue that has surfaced several times during the drafting process -- whether golf courses are compatible with natural resource preservation and appropriate for situating the the required natural resources areas.

At the session on July 8, Councilman Robert Weiner offered an amendment that would restore "environmentally sensitive" courses to the list of acceptable uses in those areas. It drew favorable and unfavorable comment, as expected, from developer interests and conservation organizations, respectively.

"It is very difficult to find and environmentally friendly golf course," said civic activist Marion Stewart. Eileen Butler, of the Delaware Nature Society, said that golf courses would "compromise the integrity" of natural resources areas.

Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, on the other hand, said that it was bad policy to single out a use that is relatively unobtrusive in dedicated open space.

George Haggerty, assistant general manager of the Department of Land Use, said that the golf course issue was the thorniest encountered during the drafting process. There was a sharp diversion of opinion not only in the advisory panel but also among department professionals working to come up with an acceptable ordinance. "It all seemed to come down to whether you golf or not," he said.

When council voted down the amendment by a four-to-two margin, with Weiner and Council president Christopher Coons voting for it, Weiner offered a second one eliminating several other uses that were originally deemed permissible, if they met environmental criteria,  in the natural resources area. They included ball fields, day camps, fishing areas, nature centers, playgrounds and pools.

Weiner and Baxter both said they favored no extraneous uses in the natural resources areas if certain uses were excluded. Butler said that the nature society had no objections to hunting or fishing areas, and shooting or archery ranges -- although one of the stated purposes of the areas is as wildlife preserves.

Dave Bailey, a resident of the Bear area, said that all open space should be put to uses that benefit the communities in which they are located. Put "something on the open space that would be a contribution and not just a pile of weeds," he said. Venezky responded, "Your weeds could be my wild flowers."

The ordinance does provide that half of the open space set-aside become a community-use area offering opportunities for passive or active recreation or a combination.

Weiner's second amendment passed unanimously, with one Council member, Penrose Hollins absent from the session.

There was no debate, but nearly two hours of testimony and discussion, before Council approved, unanimously, the granting Christiana Hospital a level-of-service waiver, permitting otherwise unacceptable levels of traffic congestion, and a resolution authorizing the land use department discretionary authority to approve the hospital's preliminary plan for a 1.1 million square foot addition.

The discussion centered on whether Delaware Department of Transportation will provide highway improvements sufficient to handle the expected increased volume of traffic during the 10-year period in which the additional facilities are being built and put into operation.

"I don't see anything happening in the Churchmans Crossing area (where the hospital is located) like what is happening at Blue Ball to support Astra Zeneca," Councilman William Tansey told Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward, whom Council invited to testify at the session.

In a letter to Council members, Hayward listed several highway projects in the area since 1997 and several others he said were in at least the project development stage. As previously reported, they include adding a fifth lane to both sides of Interstate 95 and improving the Interstate 95-Delaware 1 interchange.

In his oral testimony, Hayward said the department is fully committed to those projects but added that he could not provide a specific timetable for completing them. "We're going to solve this [traffic congestion] problem ... but it is going to take patience and forbearance," he said. "It's my number one priority in New Castle County."

He also referred obliquely to the prospect of "jump start[ing] some of this with the help of private partners,"

Robert Laskowski, newly appointed president of Christiana Care Health System, the hospital's parent company, testified that the expansion must begin at once because the hospital has "a critical shortage of space." On a typical day, there are 10 to 20 patients required to wait several hours "on stretchers in the hallway" for admission to regular rooms. He said an aging population and medical advances have combined to significantly increase the demand for hospital care.

Councilman Robert Wood, in whose district the hospital is located and who sponsored both resolutions, said there is no doubt that the expansion is needed and no one on Council objected to providing the necessary governmental support to make it happen.

Weiner said that, in connection with the waiver, hospital management has agreed to a plan that would "go beyond the minimum" in relieving the demands of its employees for road space. Specifically, he explained, it will attempt to have a 17$ to 18% reduction in the number of employees who arrive during morning rush hours and leave during the afternoon rush in single-occupant vehicles. The requirement is a 15% reduction over the course of the expansion. The hospital has about 4,000 employees and expects to add another 1,000 during the course of the expansion, Laskowski said.

Two lawyers, however, voiced strong objection to Council's accommodating the hospital while not taking single steps to permit commercial expansion in the area. Larry Tarabicos, who represents Christiana Mall, and Sean Tucker, who represents developer Frank Acierno, charged that both county officials and DelDOT were applying double standards.

William Narcowich, immediate past president of the Civic League for New Castle County, questioned why the hospital wants to expand and concentrate all its resources at one location where a single  terrorist attack would result in disaster for the entire area.

Council saved its most contentious issue for last. After about half of the approximately 100 county employees who helped fill the chamber at the beginning of the session had drifted away, four Council members introduced a resolution urging the General Assembly to take no further action on a measure, which has passed the House of Representatives, to return county departments to being directed by politically appointed directors.

As part of the 1998 reorganization of county government by County Executive Tom Gordon, Council and the General Assembly agreed to abolish the appointment system in favor of having the departments run by general managers promoted from the professional ranks through the civil service, or merit, process.

As Delaforum previously reported, the Gordon administration claimed it was blind-sided by an effort sparked by Coons and Weiner to have the Assembly enact legislation reverting to the previous system. That was introduced and passed by the House under a suspension of rules during the closing days of the recently completed session. The Senate did not follow suit but the bill remains in committee there and could be enacted into law during a special session this summer or autumn or after the Assembly returns for its second session in January.

Governor Ruth Ann Minner is expected to calla the Senate back to confirm appointments, possibly as soon as August.

Most of the employees who turned out for the meeting wore tee-shirts with the inscription "Impeach Coons." Coons voiced his usual welcome at the opening of the session and deadpanned a comment that he was glad to see the overflow crowd of "so many who are interested in county government." He asked for an received good deportment from the crowd during the session. A few alternately raised and lowered hand-lettered posters but that was the extent of ther demonstration.

Venezky said the issue of appointed versus merit system directors is one that should be settled by the voters during the 2004 elections. Councilwoman Patty Powell said that changing back would lower the quality of departmental leadership because "it's difficult to go out and hire people knowing that they will only be [in the jobs] for four years."

The resolution, sponsored by Tansey, Powell, Woods and Venezky, was introduced and moved to adoption during a catchall part of the agenda referred to as "Item J." That is intended to allow Council to take action, on an emergency basis, on matters not on the formal agenda or otherwise given advance notice.

John Flaherty, of Common Cause of Delaware, and Baxter testified that was the Council equivalent to the legislature's suspension of rules. "This is an important issue, but do not [handle] it in this way," Baxter urged.

Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, testified that the legislation "was rammed through by House Republicans and cautioned that, unless Council formally stated its objection to the measure, the Senate is likely to act at its conformation session.

State representative Gregory Lavelle, a House Republican, testified there was nothing underhanded about the proposed legislation and that acting under suspension of rules is not unusual in the legilature. He voted in favor of the measure. He said the issue is whether the county executive who is elected in 2004 has the right to appoint people of his choosing to leadership positions in his administration. Governors, presidents and elected government executives in virtually every jurisdiction have that right, he said.

Coons, a Democrat, and Weiner, a Republican, both are considered to aspire to be the next county executive. Freebery, a Democrat, also is considered a possible candidate.

The four sponsors voted for the resolution, which was thereby approved. Coons and Weiner voted against it. Tansey is a Republican; the other sponsors are Democrats.

A companion resolution, sponsored by Venexky and passed, reaffirmed Council's "support of the reorganization [of county government[ ... to include establishment of merit system general managers."

Coons announced that Council will address the issue of appointment versus merit system head-on at its next session -- the last before it takes the month of August off -- when it considers an ordinance that would reinstate the position of director of public safety as a successor to retired police chief John Cunningham.

2003. All rights reserved.

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