When the Dutch launched Kent County Levy Court in 1655, their first treat was to tax landowners. They already had settled what is now the city of Lewes in Sussex County more than two decades earlier. The crowned heads of Europe were jockeying for footholds in the New World, and the slim coastal stretch named for the English baron De La Warr was as promising as any.
The hinterlands have since changed, but Delaware’s appeal to newcomers has accelerated recently. Lured by affordable housing, low taxes, breathing room, and proximity to their roots, people from neighboring states have made Delaware home. It is estimated that natives now account for less than half the population, which is nearing 900,000.
For a state that long fashioned itself as provincial, that’s an eye-opener. “We’re an appendage of the Northeast corridor without the congestion,” says Dover Realtor Tom Burns.
Some beg to differ, claiming that congestion is also a new facet of the Diamond State. We’ll visit that topic later. What’s not in dispute is the underlying reason for the emigration. “Families come here for the same reason our ancestors came,” says Valerie Woodruff, state secretary of education.
That is to say, quality of life. Delaware has become the residence of choice for many retirees, budding families and others on the move. The result is a larger and more diverse population. The U.S. Census of 2000 tallied 783,600 Delawareans. Estimates for 2006 set the number around 853,500, a 9 percent increase.
Growth is most apparent downstate, where beaches beckon and school districts bulge. While various studies and magazine articles have pegged Delaware as a retirement haven, employment has risen dramatically in Kent and Sussex counties—26 percent and 13 percent, respectively, for the period 2000-2007, and these figures reflect only jobs covered by unemployment insurance. Education and healthcare claim a healthy share of the gain. Since jobs generally signal families, it’s no surprise civic planners and educators are pressed. In some areas, Woodruff reports, “We can’t build schools fast enough.”
The state’s challenge is to harness this growth while keeping the economy vibrant. Mark Brainard, chief of staff for Governor Ruth Ann Minner, calls it “smart growth…planning communities that people want in places that are prepared for them.”
That perspective works for Kent County, which seeks to direct growth to the area linked to its Del. 1-U.S. 13 corridor while protecting agricultural land and the marshes along Delaware Bay. In the “growth zone,” a formerly rural landscape has turned suburban, as people relocating from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland have purchased much of the new housing.
“There’s been a substantial migration of suburban homeowners and empty-nester retirees,” says Kent County administrator Michael Petit de Mange. He adds that homebuyers from New Castle County have also swelled the ranks.
On the heels of New Castle County’s development boom last decade, Kent created nearly four times as many more dwelling lots from 2000 to 2007 as it did in the 1990s.
“Most of the growth was in the northern part of the county, but also south of Dover where farmers sold land that became buildable lots,” says Realtor Cynthia Witt. Expanding job opportunities at Dover Downs, Dover Air Force Base, Bayhealth Medical Center, Delaware State University, and the state capital have attracted many of the new Kent residents. Others, aided by the completion of Del. 1, commute to work in Wilmington or Philadelphia. Of the retirees who’ve settled there, many bought their homes a few years ahead of schedule.
With a head count approaching 150,000, Kent has enacted strong land-use regulations to preclude hit-and-run developers eyeing its 590 square miles of land, of which the growth zone accounts for about 18 percent. “There’s plenty of room, but it will be a challenge [to manage development],” says Brooks Banta, president of Levy Court. “This is a great place to live for all walks of life.”
Diversity in many ways has come to Sussex, the state’s largest county by area (979 square miles). Latinos and Vietnamese are prominent in poultry farming and are flexing entrepreneurial muscles in that industry and other businesses. “Now we’re getting the first wave of Latino children graduating high school and speaking English,” says Realtor Judy Dean. She cites the proposed University of Delaware campus for Sussex as “an indication of the further growth that’s coming.”
Realtor Sue Bramhall, a Seaford native and lifelong resident, recalls that the pre-World War II arrival of the DuPont Company gave her hometown a cosmopolitan flavor. Now her client list includes a Vietnamese builder and Filipino doctors from Bayhealth Medical Center and Nanticoke Memorial Hospital. She’s seen DelTech students from the Ukraine working summers at the beach. “Some stay and work or continue their education in Delaware,” says Bramhall. The same can be said of other foreign-national students. (DelTech figures for 2003-2007 show a 130 percent increase in students from Eastern Europe and a similar increase in Hispanic students.)
Meanwhile, the arts community in Sussex County has drawn creative types of all nationalities. A quartet of theater troupes has added thespians (see “Curtain Up,” this page) and art galleries have multiplied in the beach areas.
Sometimes newcomers make a round-trip of sorts. Sussex has garnered more than its share of the retirement-relocation trade, but in some cases it’s been the second pick. Folks who leave New York to retire in the Carolinas, then come halfway back to settle in Delaware, are called “halfbacks,” says Realtor Dean Donovan. Usually, they boomerang because they miss family and friends. They want to be closer.
Some retirees go all the way to Florida before returning. Let’s call them fullbacks. A few of them, Judy Dean reports, find the Sunshine State too hot to handle. They realize Delaware has beaches, a temperate climate and low taxes. Says Sussex administrator David Baker, “When new residents learn about property taxes, they tend to respond, ‘Is that per month?’”
Elsewhere on the Sussex grid, Connecticut transplants have elected to settle in towns such as Milford, which remind them of home, but at a lower tariff. Donovan knows of three former Harvard professors who’ve moved to Sussex. And the county has sharpened its profile in aviation, as PATS Aircraft in Georgetown has attracted engineers from other states, and busier corporate jet travel using Sussex County Airport has brought more pilots to the area.
New Castle County, which took flight some years ago with the propulsion of financial services, has leveled off, but is hardly grounded. Large corporate employers are still the “driving force of relocation,” according to Linda Felicetti, president of the county Board of Realtors. She says that much of the MBNA workforce cut loose by the merger with Bank of America was absorbed by other banks and stayed in the area, keeping their homes off the market. Still, job growth in New Castle has been flat since 2000, and Delaware’s high-profile employers have been hiring at a reduced rate for the past year or so.
Other trends in the county, however, are consistent with growth. The Appoquinimink School District in lower New Castle County is the fastest growing district in the state, with a new middle school (Waters), and a new high school (Appoquinimink) scheduled to open this month. The existing Middletown High School will remain. Though only a decade old, it has already been expanded twice. Woodruff, principal of Middletown High School from 1984 to 1992, attributes much of Appoquinimink’s enrollment growth during that period to families moving from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. That pattern continues.
“It’s a desirable school district, recognized as superior,” says Realtor Kevin Hensley, a former member of the school board.
Hensley says some families facing the cost crunch of higher taxes and soaring private school tuitions in other states have moved to Middletown, Odessa, Townsend and Bear because of their regard for public education in the district. Most have maintained their original job and see increased drive time as a trade-off that’s well worth it.
Another trend may be developing as a result of the Army’s planned 2011 closing of its Fort Monmouth post in northern New Jersey. Military personnel ticketed for Aberdeen Proving Ground are taking an advance look at Delaware for their future residence. “They may choose New Castle County over Maryland because of its schools, [lower] property taxes, and proximity to Wilmington and New Jersey,” says Hensley.
While the state has been on a growth offensive, government has been marshaling its assets to handle it. In Delaware, state government assumes most of the financial burden for local infrastructure and services, but has limited authority to overturn local land-use decisions. That gives added weight to the counties’ comprehensive plans.
“It gives Delawareans predictability,” says state planning director Connie Holland.
But given the trajectory of growth, some fear that a new strategy is needed to cool things down. The most eloquent proponent of restraint has been Bill Chandler, chancellor of the state Chancery Court, who contends that growth hereabouts has been more heedless than smart and is fast replacing Delaware’s bucolic charm with suburban-style headaches. In his keynote address at the governor’s Livable Delaware Conference in March, the Sussex County native posed the question, “Can Delaware have it both ways: simultaneously preserve the unique character that has made the state so livable while continuing its breakneck pace of development?”
Chandler says that state models adopted as far back as the 1960s and ’70s have “led to the selling and flipping of land, and that became the engine of growth,” especially in Sussex, the state’s least densely populated county. He worries that the engine is now overheated. County administrator Baker, however, points to a commensurate expansion of services and funding to support.
Still, downstate needs keep climbing. Cape Henlopen is building a new high school, and the Indian River School District, which includes Georgetown and Bethany Beach, is growing swiftly. The influx of non-English-speaking families poses a big challenge to educational resources. “It’s an enormous issue in Sussex,” says Woodruff, who counts some 70 different languages spoken by students statewide. “It needs additional dollars.”
All the more reason, many suggest, not to pull back the throttle on economic development. “Twenty years ago, any new job was a good job,” says Judy McKinney-Cherry, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. “Now we concentrate on high-wage, value-added, sustainable businesses that can leverage opportunities, maybe the next Gore.”
It all adds up to new Delawareans yet to come.
After living all over the world and retiring to The Outer Banks of North Carolina, Margo and Gary Ramage underwent a life-changing experience. While visiting friends in Ocean View, they stumbled across what Margo affectionately calls “the little Podunk town of Milton, Delaware.” The local theater was under renovation, and it caught the couple’s eye.
“It was dusty and decrepit, and we were impressed that the community wanted to restore it,” says Gary. “Within a week, we had a ‘for sale’ sign on our house in The Outer Banks.”
That was four years ago, and the Ramages say that their subsequent move to Lewes was the 24th of their now 46-year-old marriage, which has included stops in Belgium and Germany. “I think this is it,” says Gary, a longtime military man.
Now they’re closer to their grandchildren in Wilmington and Cape Cod, and still able to pursue an abiding passion—they met as actors in California in an earlier lifetime. These days, Margo performs and Gary directs at such venues as the Milton Theatre and Georgetown’s Possum Point Players.
Talk about a strong second act.
After stints at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and UCLA Medical Center, heart surgeon Daniel Marelli received an offer from expanding Bayhealth Medical Center in Dover. For the Marellis, it was an offer they could not refuse.
“We missed the East Coast,” says wife Jessica. “It’s an area we were fond of.”
So earlier this year they moved their family to Wyoming—Delaware, that is—and they’ve been enjoying the pulse of small-town living ever since. Others clearly share that sentiment. “I run into people on a daily basis who’ve moved here,” says Jessica.
Her running includes regular jaunts to Wyoming’s “little downtown area,” strawberry festivals, and Spence’s Bazaar in Dover. She and her husband are big fans of farm-fresh produce, and “the kids love it.”
Plus, it’s heart-healthy.
Jack Maddox came to Seaford from Texas via Pennsylvania. After retiring from the Navy, he worked for an engineering firm near Philadelphia before retiring in earnest. Eight years ago, steered toward the area by a co-worker planning retirement, Maddox took his wife, Eva, to Sussex County for an anniversary weekend. He felt as comfortable as a prairie dog in a burrow.
“It reminded me of the town where I grew up—the farming, the wide-open spaces,” Maddox says.
The Maddoxes soon bought a single home on a large lot in a small development about five miles outside of Seaford, and they continue to enjoy the elbow room and ambience.
“The people are laid back and it’s a good place to relax,” Maddox says. “And I pay a fourth of the taxes I did in Pennsylvania.”