OCEAN PINES – Candidates for county commissioner in District 5 and District 6 fielded questions from the public at a forum hosted by the Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce last week.
Last Wednesday, the chamber invited Commissioner Chip Bertino and challenger Grant Helvey from District 5 and Commissioner Jim Bunting and challenger Richard Addis from District 6 to the Ocean Pines library to share their views with area residents. Candidates were asked to address topics like growth, the proposed sports complex and hurdles facing local businesses.
“Hopefully you’ll share what you heard tonight,” said Del. Wayne Hartman, who was among those in attendance and thanked the chamber for hosting the event and the candidates for participating. “I wish every seat in here was full.”
All four candidates expressed opposition to taxpayer funding being used for a sports complex. Addis said he was on the committee collecting signatures to bring the issue of whether the county should use bond funds for the project to referendum.
“We’re not against a sports complex, what we are against is the misuse of funds and the gross negligence that has been done to find an appropriate place,” he said.
Addis said nearby properties, some that were even larger than the proposed 95-acre site next to Stephen Decatur High School, were selling for far less than the $7.1 million the county plans to pay for the property under contract.
Helvey also said he was not opposed to a sports complex but rather the lack of planning. He said he’d watched as the three commissioners who’d voted against the purchase fail to receive answers to the questions they’d asked about the project.
“The Worcester County Commissioners voted to bond $11 million to build a sports complex with almost no planning whatsoever,” Helvey said.
He added that Berlin officials had not been consulted despite the fact that the town would see the most impact from the potential development.
Bunting and Bertino reiterated the concerns they’ve shared for years about the project.
“I’m not against a sports complex coming to Worcester County but I’m against Worcester County having anything to do with it financially, running or operating it,” Bunting said. “Quite frankly Worcester County couldn’t run a pie stand.”
He added the proposed location was a bad one and that the project would suit the southern end of Worcester County better.
Bertino said the questions he and Bunting had asked for the past six years remained unanswered.
“This has been forced through,” he said.
He added that a project this size should have involved more stakeholder input.
“This train has already left the station and if this referendum petition is successful, that’s not the end of the issue because quite truthfully the majority of the commissioners could say we’re going to find a different funding source and we’re not going to go to the bond market we can take it from budget stabilization or fund balance,” Bertino said. “As worthy as the effort is for this particular petition quite truthfully it may not get the result the folks who are signing that petition would like.”
On the topic of development in general, Bunting told the audience he thought there was plenty already in the north end of the county.
“I think we’re just going above and beyond what we need,” he said. “You can’t get into Ocean City during the summer or during the winter. You have to have a reservation to go to dinner. Route 589 is backed up almost year-round.”
He said development needed to be in the southern portion of the county.
“I think you can reach a point with development, where, they keep using the word economic development, where there’s no economics in it it’s just going to cost you more money,” he said. “I think we need to take a close look at that.”
Bertino acknowledged that development paid taxes but agreed that northern Worcester had plenty already.
“Water and sewer, as unattractive as it may be to talk about or look at, certainly that plays a huge part in developing this county,” he said. “Right now most of our water and sewer infrastructure is in the northern part of the county…. If we are to look at increasing development around the county, we do need to make an investment in infrastructure. I think it’s proper for government to make an investment of that sort.”
He added that the county did need additional housing, particularly affordable housing, in the middle to southern sections of the county.
“We have teachers that can’t even live in our county because they can’t afford housing here,” he said.
Addis said the county needed to focus on its two main industries, agriculture and tourism.
“Down at the southern end, it’s not going to make sense to throw a Holiday Inn Express right in the center of Pocomoke in the middle of the cornfield because there’s nothing that people are going to stay there for yet,” he said. “But like you were saying, the sports complex could be down south and that could be an attraction, hopefully things could grow there.”
He said there was already a lot of farmland in Worcester.
“Agritourism is going to be something that will promote a lot of jobs here on Delmarva,” he said, adding that Bunting and Bertino had voted against the agritourism legislation that was eventually approved. “That would help spread and get people involved and staying down in those areas where they don’t have the big Holiday Inn Express. Up here in the north end we have Ocean City, I agree I don’t think it needs any more building. Honestly, I think they’ve got enough. I think they could remove a few bars. We don’t need one on every corner.”
Helvey said what the county needed was rural development. He said government owned the majority of Worcester County’s more than 300,000 acres. He added that the county spent money purchasing development rights so properties couldn’t be developed.
“Therefore, you’ve got this concentration of places like Ocean Pines where a house is sold in a couple of days, there’s five lots maybe to build on, and the county is doing nothing to promote rural development…,” he said. “I think that rural development is something that’s sorely lacking by this county. What it’s done is it’s created concentrated development like the condos by Stephen Decatur High School. They expect future generations to live in 800 square feet.”
A question about where candidates stood on allowing farmers to create new revenue sources renewed the agritourism debate. Bertino, who disputed Helvey’s assertion and said just 30% of land in Worcester was government owned, said the agritourism changes recently approved in Worcester had been too far reaching.
“What’s good in Bishopville is not necessarily good in Pocomoke or Snow Hill or vice versa,” he said. “I think we have to be very careful about opening ourselves up to allowing all sorts of development on farmland without any sort of oversight.”
Addis said his only disagreement with the bill was that it was granting permission to farmers. He believes they already had the right to do things like set up a winery or produce stand.
“We as farmers need all the help we can get especially with what’s going on economically,” he said, citing drastic cost increases. “If there’s not a law saying you can’t do it the farmers should be left alone.”
Helvey said he supported agritourism and felt the government lately felt laws needed to be made for everything.
“I can’t imagine what the problem is with allowing a farmer to have a wedding in a barn if that’s what people want to do,” he said.
Bunting defended his stance against the agritourism changes approved. He said the bill allowed anything 10 acres or more to be used for “agritainment.”
“Ten acres is not a farm,” he said.
He added that the bill didn’t include appropriate setbacks and allowed facilities at least 10 acres in size to do things like hold concerts.
“I’ll be damned if next to my home you’re going to have a three-day concert with 3,000 people and porta-potties,” Bunting said. “A lot of people weren’t aware of the bill, maybe they should be.”
Candidates were united in their criticism of the county’s handling of business permitting. Addis said the whole process should be thrown out.
“They showed just how useless it is two years ago when they suspended people’s business licenses and mandated them to close,” he said.
Addis said he understood that doing away with the system entirely wasn’t feasible.
“I understand that, but I believe it needs to be deeply deregulated,” he said. “I believe there’s too much red tape in government in general, not just in the business license aspect. Nine times out of 10, you talk to any business owner what’s your major hurdle they’re going to tell you it’s the government and dealing with the government. We’re supposed to be a government that is for the people by the people. You are not beholden to us as citizen leaders or politicians. We are beholden to you. We are here to make things work for you.”
Helvey agreed that businesses suffered tremendously during the pandemic. He said now they were struggling to find workers. To help businesses, Helvey advocated for a reduction in the business license fees or a free extension of business licenses.
“We need to be helping these businesses and business licensing for many of them might be the deal killer,” he said.
Bunting said he’d helped countless businsess during his 12 years as commissioner, particularly new ones that were experiencing delays during the permitting process.
“There’s been staff that were against anybody that walked through the door,” he said. “I’ve tried to get rid of some of that staff and I’ve tried to hire staff that works better with the public. That’s what I will continue to do.”
Bertino said that while businesses had been forced to close during the pandemic, that had been the state’s doing. The county, meanwhile, helped businesses get relief funding and adjusted regulations to allow restaurants to serve outside, for example. Like Bunting, he said he too had been contacted by businesses that had trouble getting through permitting. He said one of those had been the Ocean Downs Casino when it added its new section.
“We can do a lot better with that,” he said. “I’m one of seven commissioners, you need four votes to get things like that done. I know there’s two sitting right here that have worked in that regard.”