County looks at appeals process

A bare quorum of Sussex County Council members gathered for a brief council meeting on Aug. 9, to discuss a specific subdivision appeal, but also appeals in general.

Attorney Heidi Balliet, representing the Spring Breeze subdivision project (275 lots, near Angola) petitioned council for reconsideration, following a denial from the county’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission.

Council Members Lynn Rogers and Vance Phillips, and President Finley Jones, voted unanimously to grant the appeal.

That doesn’t mean Balliet gets an automatic green light — just a hearing. According to county code, applicants who feel they’ve been aggrieved by decision of the P&Z “shall receive an opportunity to appear before the Commission to present additional relevant information and request reconsideration of the original finding…”

If they’re denied again, and the applicant still feel P&Z’s decision is “unreasonable and causes him unjustifiable hardship, he may appear before the County Council to request a reconsideration of the denial…”

This came up once already this year, back in February — different subdivision, different issues, similar application of county code. At that time, council members had debated the P&Z’s ability to knock down subdivisions based on the regulatory power (or lack thereof, depending on one’s perspective) contained within a list of 17 factors in the subdivision ordinance.

The P&Z often (but not often enough, as Council Member George Cole said at the time) leaned on items like (1) integration into existing terrain and surrounding lands and (13) preservation and conservation of farmland, in reducing subdivision size.

However, the developer’s attorney suggested the commissioners in so doing might have overstepping their regulatory jurisdiction, attempting to legislate rezoning.

But that argument aside, County Attorney Jim Griffin took the opportunity to criticize the language covering appeals at that time, calling it vague. Griffin presented a draft ordinance for consideration on Aug. 9, to go along with the second subdivision appeal of the year.

One important component — Griffin suggested a time limit for bringing the appeal before council (if rebuffed again at the P&Z).

He also clarified that the appeal would be based on the record established at the second try before the P&Z (no public hearing, council considers no new evidence).

If the appellant is still dissatisfied after council either affirms, reverses or modifies the P&Z decision, the existing code directs further action toward Superior Court.

Griffin recommended the addition of a “standard of review,” such that prior decisions would be upheld “unless the appellant can demonstrate that the Commission acted in an unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious manner by misapplying or misinterpreting the provisions of this chapter or by imposing a condition that is inconsistent…” with existing ordinances or laws.

The matter will return to the council agenda on Aug. 23, again for discussion, to give council members absent on Aug. 9 a chance to review it before introduction.

In other business, council awarded a $50,000 grant to Sussex County Senior Services (CHEER), for capital projects (Long Neck and Cedar Neck). County Administrator Bob Stickels said he wasn’t sure how CHEER planned to divvy up those funds.

The county awarded a $25,000 grant for the capital project on Cedar Neck Road (north of Ocean View), last year.

Council also approved the distribution of nearly $800,000 for transportation needs at CHEER’s seven senior centers around the county, via the Reimbursable Transportation Program.

Those funds come to the county from Delaware Area Regional Transit (DART, a division of the Department of Transportation). The county reviews disbursements to the senior centers, acting as a go-between in the event of any budget adjustments.