September 9, 2002

Alleging that New Castle County has become widely regarded as anti-business, a group representing development interests urged officials and civic leaders to modify land-use laws and procedures to make them less restrictive. Their presentation got a receptive response -- at least to the point of their being asked to draft specific proposals as the basis for further discussion.

County Executive Tom Gordon indicated during the course of conversation that he feels some changes in the county's Unified Development Code might be in order.

Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a trade organization, said that existing businesses and potential newcomers are deterred from expanding or relocating because they have to trod a long, costly and uncertain path to have their plans approved. That applies to both commercial and residential development, she said.

"In [neighboring] Pennsylvania and New Jersey they have a certain process and you can get through it quickly. In New Castle County it takes forever," she said. Expansion consultants are telling corporate executives in the region, and even nationally, "don't bother to look at New Castle County because you can't do it there," he said.

Attorney Larry Tarabicos, who specializes in land-use matters, added that downstate Delaware and several municipalities in New Castle are aggressively seeking economic growth at the expense of unincorporated areas of the northern county. "They embrace development in Sussex County. Growth is welcome there and it's not all for retirees," he said. "A Home Depot comes in and all they say is, 'Where do you want to go?'"

He said pressure is mounting for that county to increase the amount of land-use planning and regulation but predicted it will be a long while before sentiment there favors emulating New Castle. "It is clear to everyone that development is leaving New Castle County and they don't want that," he said.

Gordon acknowledged that the county's efforts to control and channel growth have led to a seemingly irresistible pattern of expansion by Middletown, Newark and Odessa, and Smyrna and Clayton in northern Kent County. Those towns have their own ordinances to govern land use within their borders, which are far less stringent than the county's code. Most annexations in recent years have been to accommodate proposed development projects.

"Nobody [in state government] has the will to stop annexation," he said.

Gordon acknowledged that the county's comprehensive development code, signature legislation of his administration, has had some unanticipated and probably undesirable consequences. "Maybe there are some places where we went too far," he said. "We've got to say we had a good idea, but the rest of the state did not embrace it.... Where we're too far ahead, we ought to go back."

The law was "not intended to stop growth," he said, adding that "no growth means no jobs" and limited opportunity for the rising generation. "If we keep the [development code] and no houses are built and there are no [new] jobs and our children have to move away, what have we accomplished?" he said.

Baxter said the development code appears to have fueled the classic battle between the heres and the here-nots. "There is a certain sense out there that I have my home and I have my job and I don't care," she said.

Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, which administers the law, was present but did not participate in that part of the dialogue.

The pro-development presentation before an assembly of officers of umbrella civic organizations, which is convened on a regular basis by Gordon and County Council president Christopher Coons, did not take aim at the development code itself. The main thrust was to seek modification of level-of-service traffic requirements which predate the law but have been incorporated into it.

In essence, those requirements say that a major development plan cannot proceed if the volume of traffic at key nearby intersections causes supposedly unacceptable delays. If the wait to get through an intersection while on a main road exceeds 80 seconds, the intersection is considered to be 'in failure'.

That, said traffic engineer Ted Williams, of Landmark Engineering, is unrealistic. "It requires spending a lot of public and private money [to improve the intersection] for a minor change," he said. Providing an additional highway lane to bring a 'failed' intersection up to an acceptable level, of instance, could mean spending $20 million to shave 20 seconds off the wait time.

Moreover, it is becoming commonplace for people to live greater distances from where they work than they have in the past and therefore are required to commute through those intersections, according to Rick Woodson, president of Home Builders Association of Delaware. As a result, the proposed development is stymied while traffic volume that has nothing to do with the project produces the same or probably more adverse traffic impact.. "They don't live there or work there, but they still have to go through there," he said.

"How many people are already traveling from Smyrna or southern Chester County (Pa.) or Cecil County (Md.) to Wilmington? If they can't build in New Castle County, they're going to build in other places and the congestion is going to increase and level of service is going to get worse anyway," he said.

Driving development away while not alleviating the need for highway and other infrastructure improvements is simply going to mean more demands on a tax base which will not grow proportionately.

"There is plenty of space to develop but there is an infrastructure issue," Tarabicos said, adding that it is economically unrealistic to require that infrastructure be in place before development can proceed. A more reasonable policy, he added, would be, "Let's provide infrastructure so we can have development."

Kevin McGonigle, a commercial and industrial reality broker, said it is impossible to track the extent to which New Castle County has lost economic development. In most cases, the decision to avoid the area is made before there are any approaches. Similarly, existing businesses -- especially small- to medium-size firms -- eyeing expansion simply look elsewhere, he said.

Few firms without political and economic clout are willing to run the gauntlet necessary to obtain approval of even apparently routine proposals, he explained. "I wish I had clients like Astra Zeneca, where everybody sits up and takes notice," he added.

So-called 'brownfields' development may appear attractive but requires financial assistance and a degree of attention-attracting support. The Christina Riverfront project in Wilmington is a good example of redevelopment where former industrial use of the property had become obsolete, but smaller redevelopment efforts fall far short of mustering such interest and support, he said.

Whether it involves development or redevelopment, a company is going to weigh the investment of time and money required to get through the process against the benefits, Baxter said. The sticking point, she added, is inability to predict the outcome.

"If something is uncertain, they are not going to invest. We lose development opportunities when we can't say [approval] is likely," she said. "There is also a cost [involved] in delay. They have to make a decision quickly -- and they can't do that here."

2002. All rights reserved.

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