County discusses new appeals process

Sussex County Council considered draft legislation that would create a new appeals process for parties aggrieved by county decisions regarding subdivisions, at the Aug. 23 regular council meeting.

County Attorney Jim Griffin worked some housekeeping on the existing code, which is unclear when it comes to appeals before council.

As it stands, applicants who are turned down at the county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commission, and feel the county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission did them wrong, “may request and shall receive opportunity to appear before the Commission to present additional relevant information and request reconsideration…”

This is free of charge — and, if they feel they’re still aggrieved, they can petition council, within 60 days, again free of charge.

First, the draft ordinance would require appellants to meet certain reasonable criteria, to show they were indeed aggrieved.

Second, as the law is written, it’s rather vague what they can present before council — only the information they presented at their second chance before the P&Z, or new information. This legislation would clarify that — no new evidence. Council will merely review the record from P&Z (rounds one and two).

In addition, Griffin recommended some fees — $500 for the appeal at P&Z, and another $500 to appear before council, plus costs associated with hiring a court reporter to type up the transcripts.

At first, Council Member George Cole protested those fees, saying they tended to make appeals less accessible to average citizens.

However, as Griffin clarified, the law as it stands refers only to an applicant’s rights of appeal. With the suggested changes, anyone who felt they’d been aggrieved by the commission’s denial — or approval — of a subdivision, even if they hadn’t made it to the public hearing at P&Z, could pay the fee and appeal.

At that, Cole admitted it was cheaper than the alternative. As it stands, anyone can appeal a county ruling on a subdivision, but they have to go to Superior Court to do it. As Griffin pointed out, there was a filing fee, and again, the appellant would have to pay for transcripts — and they’d need an attorney.

Cole suspected that could add to as much as $5,000 — “At least,” Griffin added.

Council won’t meet for the next two weeks, but the ordinance will be formally introduced on Sept. 13.

As Cole noted, if council decides this renovated appeals process would be good for subdivisions, they might want to look at putting a similar process in place for appeals of Board of Adjustment decisions (which presently go directly to Superior Court) and conditional use or change of zone decisions (which go to the Court of Chancery).

In other business, County Administrator Bob Stickels asked council to consider a modest increase in building inspection fees, basically another $30 in each category (based on square footage).

Stickels said it had been nine years since they last increased the fees, and costs (labor, insurance, gas) had increased significantly since then. “We want to avoid the situation the state of Delaware is in ... the shortfalls they have are affecting all our road projects,” Stickels said. “The county is on the plus side, as far as revenues, but we can’t wait until we’re on the minus side to start raising fees.”

He said the new fees would be comparable with what Kent County charges for building inspections — a little more here, a little less there. Sussex County contracts with First State Inspection Agency for the work, and they receive 70 percent of the fees, he noted.

Stickels also reminded council members that the time had once again arrived for the annual Capital Transportation Program meeting (Sept. 8), so if they had any road priorities, they needed to let him know as soon as possible.

Stickels compiles a list of projects every year and presents them to the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) for consideration.

Council President Finley Jones asked Stickels if the preliminary list he’d presented was ordered by priority, and if that meant he considered the Indian River Inlet Bridge (at the top of the list) the top priority.

Stickels answered yes and yes — council had agreed to make it a priority two years ago, he said. And he noted general agreement that if the bridge became unserviceable, it could devastate the coastal economy.

However, enthusiasm for sinking major funds into a flagship bridge — enough to fund many a local roads project – and in light of DelDOT’s budget shortfalls this year, appeared to have waned. “That was when it was going to cost $50 million,” Jones stated. “Now, it’s $150 million — and climbing.”