Tension over Sussex's explosive growth spills into protest

Tension over Sussex's explosive growth spills into protest
Protesters in Georgetown on Tuesday call for change in how Sussex County manages its growth. 

Drivers going around the circle in Georgetown on Tuesday saw an unusually active and noisy scene: Outside the Sussex County administration building, a crowd of protesters stood along the street, waving signs with messages like “Enough!” and “Protect our wetlands!” They called out to motorists to honk in support, and many obliged.  

Often on a Tuesday morning, the Council’s usual meeting day, the most exciting thing you might see is a pedestrian or two and a steady stream of traffic, or maybe a group taking wedding photos in the park inside the circle. The crowd on this sunny September morning was out to show displeasure over how the county council is handling the ongoing surge in development that has the Sussex population soaring ever higher.

Many in the crowd reflected Sussex County’s growing retired population (perhaps not surprising during a work day), but not all. Jennifer Peasnall and Sophie Phillips, both 25, were among younger voices showing support.

“I want County Council to listen to us, and to actually make changes that are actually going to help us and help the environment,” Peasnall, of Milton, said.

Phillips, of Bear, is 2021’s Miss Delaware and is studying energy and environmental policy at UD.

“Industry is so powerful down here, so any policy changes that we try to make just get overrun by industry every single time,” she said, expressing a frustration shared by other area activists.

Phillips also said many Hispanic and African American communities are the ones who have to live right up against industrial areas. She was enthusiastic about turnout at the rally and said she hopes it will raise political awareness. “So few people actually get out to vote, which is why you see the same people (in county government) over and over again.”

The conflict: Setting the scene

You don’t have to go far in Sussex to find a strong opinion about development, and one reason for the tension is the influx of newcomers in the past few decades. In the centuries since Colonial times, for the vast majority of time the county had fewer than fewer than 50,000 residents. It’s now, according to 2019 estimates, at more than 230,000, and we’ll get more precise numbers soon when the latest census figures come out.

That growth happened at dizzying speed. About 20,000 people lived here in 1800. In 1900, there were a little over 42,000. By 1950, there were still only about 60,000 people living here.

And then the rocket launched. The county passed 100,000 people in the mid-1980s. By 2010, the population had almost doubled to around 198,000.

It’s noteworthy that since 2005 alone, the number of new residents who have come to the county is about equal to the entire population in 1950.

Depending on who you ask, that’s a boon for the county or a major problem.

The group that organized Tuesday’s protest, Sussex2030, sees the development as too much, too fast. It’s a local grassroots group, one of a number in the area, that came together in 2019 to protest plans for a gas station on Route 24 in Angola. Since then, they’ve become a sort of development watchdog and thorn in the side to county officials, calling for a change in the way Sussex does business and working against a number of different proposals they see as bad for the area.

Dave Breen, a member of the group who lives in Marsh Farm Estates not far from Rehoboth Bay, said in an interview last week with the Delaware Independent that the group is not anti-development, but wants growth to be planned and sustainable — considering both quality of life and the environment. He fears the area is headed toward becoming another Ocean City, a possibility some might favor but that he clearly sees as a negative.

The group’s name reflects a look ahead to life in the area in 10 years, and it says on its website it wants to preserve the area’s natural beauty and make sure population growth doesn’t get ahead of the infrastructure needed to support quality of life.

Some of the protesters at Tuesday’s event were affiliated with Sussex2030, and others had heard about it by word of mouth.

Protesters made their way into Council chambers Tuesday and a number of them spoke at the weekly meeting. Breen was one of them, offering a strong rebuke of the council. He said it’s ignoring residents and that the rules on development are not worth the paper they’re printed on, because council members are free to ignore them.

“I also ask you to do something rather than just stand around and pretend (a problem) doesn’t exist,” he said, to applause from some in the audience.

The county's perspective

One common refrain from protesters was that they want council to listen to them.

The message from county leaders is that they are listening and they aren’t ignoring the issues.

“I want to listen to all parties and come up with the best solution to make Sussex as good as it can be,” John Rieley, council vice president, told protesters in an informal meeting Tuesday.

“I think we’re pretty open-minded to solutions,” he said afterward. “And you know, we get it, and we all live here, and we all, I think, want the same thing.”

Sussex County Council and staff at a previous meeting. From left are Cindy Green, Council President Michael Vincent, Vice President John Rieley, Councilman Douglas Hudson and Finance DIrector Gina Jennings. 

Breen suggested the county’s planning and zoning commission is rubber stamping everything proposed by developers because they don’t want to get sued.

But Kim Hoey Stevenson, vice chairperson of the commission, pushed back on that.

“I don’t think we’re rubber stamping everything that comes through,” she told The Delaware Independent. “I get a thousand-page packet every two weeks, I read it all, and I read the emails people send and the notes that people send, and we take into consideration people’s concerns.”

“I live here too,” she said. “So yes, I understand the traffic (concerns).” She said planning and zoning is following the ordinances that are in place. “I can’t come to you and say, ‘No, you own this property, but you can’t build a house on it.’”

Rieley echoed that. “There’s a very exhaustive process that takes into account infrastructure, you know, and the overall impact and balances that against the rights of the property owner … our job is to … find that happy medium.”

Both officials see conditional use permits as a tool for the county to influence development, allowing construction but putting conditions in place that developers have to meet.

Hoey Stevenson and Rieley also both pointed to large portions of land that are being set aside in the county as out of bounds for development, as in farmland preservation programs. According to the state, 19 percent of the county’s farmland was preserved as of July. According to the county’s 2018 comprehensive plan, most of the county was still undeveloped at the time, with 95,000 acres developed as opposed to 227,000 preserved acres and another 256,000 acres undeveloped or in farmland. (This does not mean they’re all exactly rural acres: think the small patches of farmland squeezed in among developments near the beaches).

“We will increase our budget for open space purchases to $3 million this year, which is a record high for the council,” Rieley said.

The county’s comprehensive plan comes up a lot in discussions like these. The document calls for, in essence, straddling the fence on growth and preservation: preserving the area’s natural and agricultural heritage, while also “fostering new economic opportunities, community vitality, and desirable growth.”

It takes into consideration many of the concerns raised by residents, and takes a strategy of focusing growth in areas where there is existing development along with the roads and other support needed, as a way of preserving agricultural land. Coastal areas, a prime area of concern for Sussex 2030 members, are actually specifically mentioned as places for growth.

The pro-development argument

Joe Conaway has seen a lot of change in Sussex County. The 83-year-old, who consults developers on land use, lived in the Bridgeville area for 43 years, where he served as a high school principal and later as president of the town commission and Sussex County administrator. He now lives, appropriately enough, in a development around a golf course near Georgetown.

Conaway, who also serves as chairman of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee, is unapologetically pro-development. In fact, he’s sometimes advising the developers on the exact projects that come under fire from protesters.

“Most of what we have today is the result of growth,” he said. The hospitals have gotten better, for example, and construction is a major source of jobs, which are a key point for Conaway. “Some of our young people are staying (in Sussex) now instead of going off as they did.”

The county also needs people to serve in jobs supporting the aging population, Conaway said.

A man without an election to worry about, he minced no words about Tuesday’s protesters.

“They came and they bought houses here. And then all of a sudden they said, ‘Well there’s too much traffic.’ Well, guess what, if you’ve been here since, let’s say 2000, you are the people who brought the traffic … you are part of the problem.”

In my earlier conversation with Dave Breen, I asked him about this. Breen lives in a fairly new development, as do others in the group. His take is that they aren’t opposed to development, but that people who moved here wrongly assumed that the county was doing better planning for the future.

Sussex2030 wants the county to preserve the natural beauty that exists and that attracts people to the area (a goal the comprehensive plan also touts). Breen doesn’t think the county is living up to that.  

“Basically, it’s the wild wild west. … It’s sort of like they’re willing to kill the goose laying the golden egg.”

But Sussex County, Conaway said, hews closely to its comprehensive plan, and he dismissed concerns over the county’s common changing of  AR1 zoning (agricultural and residential) to more commercial use. That zoning reflects the state of the county years ago, and was never intended to permanently stay that way, he said. “The market will determine how much is going to be built.”

Conaway sees growth as an economic driver and wants it to continue. He also pointed to a need for more affordable housing for people who work in the beach area, including hospital staff, first responders and others who serve the community.

“The teachers in Cape Henlopen and Indian River, they can’t buy homes,” he said.

It’s not that Conaway doesn’t see problems in the area. Like council members and protesters alike, he mentioned the traffic. The state, he said, no matter who was in control, has never allocated what Sussex County needed for its road system, “and we have paid for that failure.”

Council Vice President Rieley recognizes meeting Sussex’s dual goals of preservation and growth will be a challenge. The county has faced a huge boom in the past couple of years with people trying to get away from unrest in cities and realizing they can work remotely, he said, along with a Baby Boom wave that is still breaking.  

Protesters hold up signs along the circle in downtown Georgetown. 

A conflict that's not going anywhere

Tuesday’s protest is likely a preview of fights to come. For his part, Breen said he hopes to see the scattered grassroots movements that oppose Sussex County’s policies unite into a stronger front that will catch politicians' attention.

And Rieley predicted the area will continue to be a draw for new residents. He pointed to national news articles touting southern Delaware as a destination for remote work and retirement, and the high profile brought to the area by the U.S. president owning a home in Rehoboth.

“We’re on the national map,” he said.

Sources on Sussex County population over the years: Census data via worldpopulationreview.com, and population.us; Sussex County website.

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