They grew up only a dozen miles apart, but in significantly different communities. Their career paths differed as well, yet Dave Carter and Dee Durham find themselves today in the same place. As the newest members of the New Castle County Council, this pair of environmental activists, both Democrats, hope to give the county’s legislative body a considerably greener look and feel.
Both ousted incumbents during the 2018 political season. Carter rolled past Green Party candidate Dawn Lentz in November after disposing of three-term veteran William E. Powers Jr. in their party’s September primary in the Sixth District, which encompasses the southwestern corner of the county, from Porter Road south of Bear down to the Kent County line. Durham defeated 22-year Councilman Robert Weiner, gaining 54.5 percent of the vote in a the Second District, which stretches from the Wilmington city line to the Pennsylvania border, from central Brandywine Hundred west to Yorklyn. The seat had been held by Republicans since the council’s formation a half-century ago.
Carter, 56, who grew up in New Castle and graduated from William Penn High School, has a decidedly blue-collar background. His father worked at the Electric Hose & Rubber plant in Wilmington before being laid off and taking a job with Standard Chlorine south of New Castle. He spent a portion of his childhood “trapping muskrats for Christmas money” in the marshes around New Castle. “When we lost the marshes, we lost money,” he recalls.
Durham, 57, a graduate of Wilmington Friends School, grew up in a home on Mount Lebanon Road adjacent to Brandywine Creek State Park, the daughter of an ophthalmologist father who regularly volunteered his services in underdeveloped nations and a civic-minded mother who had a passion for prison reform. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of hiking and riding horses for hours in and around the park.
“Growing up next to the park, that’s where my interest in conservation came from,” she says. “Volunteering, doing good … my parents modeled that…. I wanted to make a difference in the world, make it a better place than how I found it.”
Both majored in biology in college – Durham at Swarthmore and Carter at the University of Delaware – before venturing into different forms of public service.
Carter planned on joining the Peace Corps, but took a summer job with the state Division of Fish and Wild Life. Soon he was working on the restoration of Broad Dyke Marsh, where not long before he had been trapping muskrats. He found the experience so rewarding that he shifted gears and began a 28-year career in the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. He played a major role in developing a plan for wetlands preservation in northern Delaware, a project that spurred development of the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge southwest of the Wilmington riverfront. He also worked on developing an environmental management plan for Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood, a low-income area prone to significant flooding. That effort led to approvals for a soon-to-be-created wetland park in the community that will feature a walkable pathway and other recreational opportunities.
After leaving DNREC in 2012, Carter headed to the University of Delaware, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in public policy and administration. While studying for his advanced degrees – and planning a new career as a faculty member – Carter also served as the conservation chairman of the Delaware Audubon Society. In this role, he became a leader in forces battling a proposed “data center” on UD’s new Science, Technology and Advanced Research campus. The university abandoned the project in 2014 in the face of environmental and community opposition to the 279-megawatt cogeneration power plant that was part of the proposal.
“I’m just a civic activist. I try to look out for the little guys and do what’s right. I do what we did growing up in New Castle. We were blue-collar boys who played hard, made friends, stuck together and just looked out for each other,” he says.
Durham’s working career began as an extension of her childhood equestrian passions – giving riding lessons and managing a couple of barns. She soon found it too difficult to make a living in that fashion and landed a bottom-rung administrative job with a new nonprofit, Preservation Delaware, whose early interests were focused in preserving the old Gibraltar mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington. Soon after she arrived, the original executive director resigned, and so did a couple of other employees, leaving her as the only paid staff member. She developed an expertise in historic preservation and was successful enough in management and fundraising to keep the organization afloat for 10 years. (Gibraltar is still standing, but has yet to be restored to its former glory.)
In 2002, she went to work for S.A.V.E. (Safety, Agriculture, Villages & Environment), a nonprofit in Chester County, Pennsylvania, that was organized to oppose the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plans for widening Pennsylvania Route 41 from the Delaware state line to Gap. “We fought that, and developed a counterproposal with roundabouts and traffic calming,” she says.
After nearly a decade with S.A.V.E., Durham devoted herself to another environmental issue, trying to reduce the impact of single-use plastics like Styrofoam and drinking straws that foul roadways and beaches and can cause serious injuries or death to birds and both marine and farm animals. In 2010 she co-founded Plastic Free Delaware and began raising awareness through educational programming, group presentations and advocating for legislation. Last fall she earned an outstanding volunteer award from Gov. John Carney for her efforts.
Durham says she hopes to continue her advocacy for a plastic-free environment at the county level. While state legislation remains the organization’s goal, she hopes to persuade County Executive Matt Meyer and his staff to reduce the use of single-use plastics at county functions and in county facilities.
As they start their terms – their positions pay $45,915 a year – Durham and Carter hope to upgrade the council’s focus on environmental, conservation and preservation issues. They also tend toward more liberal stances on hot-button issues like affordable housing and property reassessments.
“The council does care about environmental issues,” Carter says, but it hasn’t had a member with a strong environmental background since Karen Venezky, a Newark Democrat who left the council more than a dozen years ago.
“It takes a champion,” Durham adds. “If other council members aren’t passionate about something, it’s not going to move forward, but Dave and I definitely are [going to be advocates].”
Here’s a sampling of their views on issues they intend to press in council.
Coastal Zone industries: Although he now lives on a farm in Townsend, Carter’s childhood in New Castle, his work with DNREC and his experiences with environmental disasters along the Delaware River have all strengthened his dedication to preserving the landmark 1971 Coastal Zone Act, which was modified in the last session of the General Assembly to facilitate redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites. The county’s greatest impact on the environment is through its legislative powers over land use, he says, “and what is considered heavy industry is determined by the county code.” Carter is also concerned that some undeveloped areas adjacent to industrial sites are zoned residential, creating the potential for construction of new housing that could pose environmental hazards to its residents. “How can we create permanent safeguards for people sleeping at night net to large quantities of volatile chemicals?” he wonders.
Historic preservation: From her experience with Preservation Delaware, Durham has developed an appreciation for historic structures. “It’s ironic, when Americans vacation, they like to go to small historic towns … or to gorgeous cities in Europe,” she says. “So why is it that in America, we destroy these things?” She hopes to strengthen the county’s historic preservation ordinances – putting more teeth in laws to restrict “demolition by neglect,” the practices of developers letting historic structures deteriorate until they claim they have no choice but to tear them down; enhancing the resident curatorship program that creates caretaking opportunities for residents of county-owned historic buildings; and expanding the use of historic overlay districts on zoning maps. The county’s historic preservation planner has recently begun researching best practices in other parts of the country, she says.
Carter believes the county can use its building code to help prevent demolition by neglect. “I don’t know what the solution is. It all comes down to money…. But, at a minimum, put a roof on it. If you’ve got a good roof, it’s not taking on water, and that buys time.”
Farmland preservation: Carter hopes to begin discussion this month about setting up a new county farmland preservation board. “It has never been set up properly in accordance with state law,” he says. The county government has been subjected to periodic criticism for offering farmers in lower New Castle County far more than they would qualify to receive from the state’s program for pledging not to develop their acreage. “Is it favoritism, or do we have a subset of farmers for whom it’s hard to distinguish whether they’re farmers or developers? [It seems like some are] creating subdivision plans, then trying to get full value for a conservation easement.”
Open space preservation: There are plenty of experts in this area already, both in county government and in organizations like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands, Durham says. “We’ve got to figure out how to prioritize, how we’re going to spend the money,” she says, suggesting more partnerships with nonprofits who specialize in acquiring open space for preservation purposes. Preventing further development in areas near the Brandywine that are now part of the First State National Park, is a priority for Durham, who now lives in the home her parents built on Mount Lebanon Road.
Affordable housing: Both Carter and Durham are concerned with shortages of housing for families with low to moderate incomes. “We haven’t built a single unit of what I would call affordable housing since the UDC [Uniform Development Code] was passed in 1997,” Carter says.
Durham points to multiple mixed-use projects in the Concord Pike corridor that will include multifamily housing – the Buccini/Pollin Group’s redevelopment of Concord Plaza, Delle Donne’s proposed Avenue North redevelopment of the AstraZeneca site, and Capano’s redevelopment of the former Brandywine Country Club property. WILMAPCO, the Wilmington Area Planning Commission, completed a study in 2017 that identified a need for 500 apartment units in north Wilmington, she says. “We’re already over that, but the units are not being built to meet the need [for moderate-income residents].”
Property reassessment: Outdated property assessments for real estate taxes have been an issue in the state for years. The last reassessments were done in 1983 in New Castle County, in 1977 for Kent County and in 1974 for Sussex County. Thousands of homes and business structures have been built since then, and their value, for taxation purposes, is based on estimated costs from the year of the most recent reassessment. The outdated assessments are now being challenged in a school funding lawsuit filed by the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although assessments are a county responsibility, all three county governments have said they don’t have the funds to pay for one, and the state has shown little interest in underwriting the projects.
“With the ACLU lawsuit, it’s really in the state’s hands right now,” Durham says. “Most people I talk to agree that it needs to happen. Every year we get farther away [from equity in property values].”
“The number one priority for economic development in the county and in the state is fixing our education system,” Carter says. “It’s a hard swallow but reassessment is essential. It’s an issue we’ve let fester for too long. I would love to have two terms on council, but this [position] could cost me a second term.”