County postdates housing ordinance

Sussex County Council enacted an ordinance to permit multisectional manufactured homes (24 feet or wider) on private residential lots (as small as half-acre) at the Aug. 16 meeting.

But the ordinance won’t go into effect probably until next summer, when the state implements a new manufactured housing inspection program.

In the meantime, residents wishing to place homes on private lots will still need three-quarters of an acre. If their homes are more than five years old, forget it. That’s strictly prohibited, even if the manufactured home is in brand-new condition.

However, as soon as the state’s program comes on line, residents will be able to petition the Board of Adjustment (BoA) and, after a public hearing, move those homes onto the smaller residential lots. As County Attorney Jim Griffin pointed out, they would consider homes on a case-by-case basis.

Council Member George Cole asked Griffin how the BoA members planned to do that. Even if they went out to personally inspect the home, Cole suggested their opinions about what was acceptable and what wasn’t might be rather subjective.

The County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission had recommended council vote down the ordinance, back in July, and Council Member Vance Phillips recognized commissioners’ concerns that the ordinance might interfere with restrictive covenants or deed restrictions.

He asked County Planner Rick Kautz whether county code superseded those restrictions.

“I think the context of the concern was that they were reliant on the existing ordinance that has the five-year limitation,” Kautz said. “Then by removing that limitation, the existing covenants would have to be amended.”

There was some question as to whether or not private neighborhoods would be able to reinstate those restrictions — although, as P&Z Director Lawrence Lank reminded, there would still be an opportunity for public comment at the BoA.

And as County Administrator Bob Stickels added, people could move “site-built” homes anywhere they wanted, no matter how old they were, without public hearing.

As Cole suggested, permissiveness in the one area didn’t necessarily support the creation of new rights in the other. “We have problems there — if we create this new ordinance, we’re going to have new problems,” he said.

However, Council Member Lynn Rogers said manufactured home quality had improved “10-fold” in recent years, and he suggested the five-year benchmark was arbitrary. Some manufactured homes improved with age, as the owners completed home improvement projects, and some stick-built homes started getting a little run-down after five years, he pointed out.

Council recognized Ruth Briggs King,executive director of First State Manufactured Housing, and King explained what was presently in place, and what was coming, as far as inspections.

King said the county did typically inspect the homes when property owners hooked up to utilities, but the inspections coming down from the state create a more comprehensive policy.

Sen. George Howard Bunting (20th District) sponsored the legislation (Senate Bill 203), and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner last month started the ball rolling. The state should now establish a Manufactured Home Installation Board within the year, and as King pointed out, that will add new protections.

“If someone is not installing these homes correctly, they can be reported to the board and stopped from installing any more,” she said.

In addition, any manufactured home to be moved would be subjected to three inspections — (1) the “initial set” (anchoring to a foundation or piers), (2) plumbing and electrical connections and (3) a final, to make sure skirting has been installed, etc.

However, even without any additional inspections, she agreed with Rogers that manufactured home quality had already increased dramatically, with the implementation of federal standards following Hurricane Andrew (1992) — by 1996, the terminology had changed (from mobile to manufactured), and so had quality.

As King pointed out, manufactured homes made up 23 percent of the county’s housing stock. That stock helped many Sussex Countians become homeowners, she said — “It’s one of the better, more realistic, forms of affordable housing.”

Council Member Dale Dukes and Council President Finley Jones were ready to move on it, and suggested their colleagues were mixing separate issues (land use versus inspections).

However, the majority was for linking the ordinance to the state’s pending inspection program, and so passed Council Member Vance Phillips’ motion, 3-2.

Council also considered an ordinance that would permit garage apartments (or, mother-in-law apartments, as Cole referred to them) in certain residential districts – as a special exception use, rather than a full-blown conditional use.

As Cole pointed out, the ordinance wouldn’t create any new permitted uses, and requests would still go through a public hearing process. However, unlike the conditional use process, which involves both the P&Z and council, and can take up to a year, the BoA can handle special exceptions — typically, in less than three months, Cole said.

Stickels reported an unfavorable recommendation from the P&Z, and a cautionary memo from Assistant County Engineer Russell Archut. According to Archut garage apartments in medium-density residential (MR) districts could double the current impact on county sewer, and the engineering department hadn’t planned for those apartments.

The county would have to levy additional impact fees, and possibly front footage fees, and connection charges to keep engineering ahead of the infrastructure curve, if the ordinance passed, Stickels noted.

Cole expected requests would increase as the process became more user-friendly, but not dramatically. And he characterized the ordinance as a good fit with the county’s moderately-priced housing initiative and other affordable housing efforts.

Council deferred action, 3-2.

In other business, council members briefly touched on the massive (nearly 1,600 units) Isaac’s Glen development, proposed for 800 acres near Milton.

The Office of State Planning Coordination (OSPC) submitted comments to the effect that the project did not comply with the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

As Cole contended, he’d asked Griffin for a definitive confirmation or refutation of that interpretation, but never received one. Stickels clarified — after fielding Cole’s request, he’d come to an understanding that it might be more appropriate for Griffin to tackle specific legal questions only following a directive from council as a whole.

Dukes suggested it was up to individual council members to make their own interpretation, and vote accordingly, and Rogers said everyone was entitled to their “day in court,” so to speak, and the opportunity to try to convince members of an elected body.

However, as Cole pressed, if a state agency could make a determination that a project was noncompliant, it seemed strange that the county could not.

“Either it is, or it isn’t,” he stated. “This is not a gray area.” Cole eventually settled for a less binding opinion from staff — Lank admitted he personally felt the project was noncompliant.

Finally, council considered a proposed residential project west of Fenwick Island — the PGS Properties venture, at Route 54 and Old Mill Bridge Road.

The applicants have requested changes of zone on two parcels at that location, roughly 17 acres in total, from existing agricultural-residential (AR-1) to commercial (C-1) and high-density residential (HR-1).

The project would comprise some to-be-determined retail component, and 119 townhouses, on 17 acres of land (gross density seven units per acre). No one lodged objections at the public hearing, and two people spoke in support (the current property owner and a neighbor).

Council members deferred action (they’re still waiting for a recommendation from the P&Z).