Coastal Zone Act hot topic at State Chamber gathering

Members of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce heard from two legislators on opposite sides of the battle over changes to the Coastal Zone Act this morning, hours before hearings on the bill began in the House.

At the chamber’s legislative breakfast, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a Democrat whose district includes coastal properties from New Castle to Delaware City, said he understands business’ desire to bring new blue-collar jobs to the state, but he thinks legislators have to give environmentalists a chance to get all their questions answered. “We need to make sure we’re putting Delaware first in whatever we do,” he said.

Rep. Peter Schwartzkopf, speaker of the house, said the bill would allow businesses to bring industry to Delaware. “We’re all going to take heat on that, make no mistake about it,” he said.

Chamber President A. Richard Heffron summarized The Coastal Zone Conversion Permit Act this way: “This is an opportunity to create economic growth and bring more jobs to Delaware if it’passed. If it’s not passed, I guarantee the sites will remain vacant.”

The bill would open the door to allowing 14 properties to reopen for business, including several shuttered sites and polluted brownfields that the operators would have to clean up. It also would allow transfer of bulk oils and minerals at sites that had docks or piers before the Coastal Zone Act became law in 1971. It doesn’t allow several heavy industrial uses.

Environmentalists, including the widow of the late Republican Gov. Russell Petersen, who championed the bill, say it puts the coastline at risk. Proponents of the bill say it will generate jobs and will lead to remediation of brownfields that state doesn’t have the money to clean up.

Supporters of the bill today were circulating an account of the original debate in 1971 written by the late Sen. Robert J. Berndt, a Republican who voted in favor of the original bill.

In the account, Berndt explained how a number of legislators vowed to make changes to the law someday but ultimately avoided the fight.

“Mind you, Herb Lesher, chair of the [Joint Finance Committee], was going to revisit the law in the house and I would lead the battle in the senate for changes,” Berndt said. “Herb died an untimely death from a fall out of an apple tree in September. My strong ally in the house was not there with me.”

Berndt did gather some support in the senate and house and sponsored ten amendments to the act.

“Public hearings were held and we were making real progress until a reporter from the Delaware State News heard a remark by a co-sponsor…The legislation was not pushed. Other problems demanded our attention. The economy had turned sour and money was scarce,” he said.

Berndt later submitted a bill allowing off-loading of oil into a pipeline using an enclosed docking system, but it went nowhere.

At a public hearing in Dover, in 1994, Berndt said Democrats promised him they would revisit the law in 1972 if he voted yes. “This is one law that I voted for in abject haste and possibly influenced other down the alphabet to support and that I really regret.”

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