On The Record: Delaware Gov. Tom Carper

Tiny Delaware, 49th in size and 45th in population, rarely gets noticed for its efforts to protect natural resources, while Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania often draw the spotlight.

But as Gov. Tom Carper points out, Delaware has quietly taken advantage of its comparative coziness to earn a national reputation for achievement among planners, conservationists and most recently the National Governors' Association. With its economy rooted deeply in agriculture, the state has cultivated a farm preservation program now struggling to keep up with the hundreds of applications it receives annually.

Stateline.org staff writer John Nagy spoke with Carper at a farm near Delaware Bay where the former NGA chairman released a new study of states' efforts to successfully balance prosperity with renewed concern for the quality of residents' lives.

Stateline.org: Delaware does not tend to make the kind of growth management headlines that we've become accustomed to from its neighbors. Is your state a conservation model?

Carper: On a per acre basis, we've been picked out by some national organizations as the leading state in agricultural preservation. We get sort of lost in the shuffle because we're small. 36,000 acres preserved permanently and another 100,000 preserved for at least the next ten years -- that's small compared to states like Texas ... I remember being on ranches in Texas that were bigger than Delaware ... But we're on the right track here. People think being small is a disadvantage. But it's an advantage because we we're able to get cabinet secretaries around the table, the right folks from the farm community, the right people from the open space community [and] the environmental community, the right folks from county governments, from city governments to work things out. This is a state where collaboration and cooperation are more often what we do than confrontation. So I'd say for states that are struggling with this: Get small. Shrink.

Stateline.org: Subdivide?

Carper: Yeah, right. No, but if we can do this in Delaware, they can do it in other states as well. tries to capture?

Carper: I'm not familiar with what he said ... The point I go back to is one I made earlier in my remarks. The things that the governors and the states were concerned about eight, nine years ago -- we still have an interest in those things -- but those aren't our concerns anymore. We're a victim of our own success in that we created a lot of jobs in this state and other places. We've seen a lot of people buy homes and build homes and a lot of development, a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of communities and new towns are springing up. And they key is, as you go up and down this little state -- I was reminded again on Saturday when I was helicoptering around -- the key is, how do we have these good jobs and the strong economy and at the same time make sure we don't destroy that which is beautiful and attractive about this place. I think we can have both a strong economy and protect our natural resources. But we've got to be smart about it.

Stateline.org: NGA emphasizes the unique circumstances that officials in every state face as they tackle growth matters. What are the parameters in which Delaware will have to work as you hand over the reins to your successor in 2001?

Carper: Well, there was a governor about twenty years ago ... who said basically states shouldn't be in the planning business. And we just sort of let things happen. After ten, twelve years we didn't like what was happening because we were seeing a lot of our open space and farmland gobbled up at 50,000 acres a decade, which is for this state a lot. What we've done is turn that around entirely and said, no, this state has a role. And when the state's providing the money for transportation, for schools, for wastewater ... we've got to have some say-so in terms of where the development is taking place. We've just had a sea change in the role of state government here, and not for the state government to come in and just basically call all the shots. But we've got a seat at the table to make sure some rationality is introduced into this process ... My hope is the next administration will preserve what we've done and maybe take it to the next level.

Stateline.org: One major player in the conservation movement -- the federal government -- received no mention during here today. Are states inherently more responsive to local needs in land use?

Carper: Traditionally I think you look to your local governments to focus on land use issues, zoning issues that sort of thing. We don't expect the Congress to focus too much on those issues, except for the designation of national forests, wilderness protections, those kinds of things. I actually testified on the House side last year in favor of using more of the offshore oil revenues to preserve open space ... And I think in the years to come, Congress is going to be in a position to do more of that. CARA [the Conservation and Reinvestment Act] ... has broad support. I read last week that as much as $13 or $14 million could come to Delaware -- if the legislation is enacted in its current form -- that we could use for preservation issues. Our money from New York is drying up.

Stateline.org: Could you elaborate?

Carper: We won this big lawsuit from New York state. For years they had taken our abandoned property money. They claimed it as their own. They said that ... abandoned property should go to the state where that company was headquartered. Delaware, where we have a whole lot of corporations -- half the New York Stock Exchange, half the Fortune 500, 300,000 corporations in all are incorporated in little Delaware -- we argued in the Supreme Court that the abandoned property ... should go to the state where the company holding the property is incorporated. On a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court said that Delaware was right. That meant a couple hundred million dollars that New York state owed us. We negotiated out a payment schedule and have now received all of the money. We put it in the parks endowment fund, water waste treatment plans, advanced technology centers at our universities ... Agricultural land and preservation of open space: Much of that money came from the settlement with New York state.

Stateline.org: On another natural resources matter, you recently took steps to try to protect the horseshoe crab population. Could you comment on the status of that?

Carper: I understand Virginia is still an outlier on this issue. Other states -- New Jersey and Maryland and some others up and down the East Coast -- are rallying to the side of the horseshoe crab. It turns out that they lay a lot of eggs ... that the migratory birds feed upon. And if we lose the horseshoe crabs, we'll lose the migratory birds. We don't want to lose either one of them ... We've asked all the states to work together and now we've asked the federal government as well to protect the old horseshoe crab. Not a particularly good-looking specie -- I don't think they look at it and say, boy what a beautiful creature that is. As it turns out they have remarkable endurance and they play an important role in terms of the migratory bird population.

Stateline.org: Have you received an answer to your request for federal assistance?

Carper: To my understanding, as of today, no.