P&Z director takes a look back

Growth and development are always hot topics in southeastern Sussex County. The real estate boom has proven a double-edged sword, bringing economic prosperity, but also increased traffic and environmental impacts.
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There’s always an argument: At what point should government step in to protect people from their own carelessness (or worse)? At what point should the government entrust the citizenry with its own self-stewardship?

At least when it comes to land use in unincorporated Sussex, it’s the county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission that has been tasked with trying to find that teeter point since zoning first came on board, back in 1968.

And P&Z Director Lawrence Lank has been working for the commission nearly that long.

Originally from Seaford (still from Seaford, actually), Lank studied to become a draftsman and first went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the Wallops Island, Va.

The commute was getting to be too much, though, so he started looking for something local and joined P&Z in late 1969, as a draftsman.

He went to work on the first-ever zoning map for the county, going through old records for more than a year, pulling every subdivision application and drawing them onto a set of maps from the State Planning Office (now the Office of State Planning Coordination, or OSPC).

In 1970, the commissioners then “rode the county,” as Lank recalled – one member from that original bunch, P&Z Chair John Allen, is still around today — and tried to come up with some design based on what was already there.

“We had to draw and locate all that, because there weren’t any platted maps then,” Lank explained. (A platted map would show graphically described lots.)

“It was a big difference, trying to figure out where you were,” he said. “But it wasn’t as active as it is today, either. The tax maps are really helpful. I don’t know how we’d get by without tax maps.”

In 1972, the county contracted a private corporation to start work on the tax maps, based on aerial and road maps — and every recorded deed in Sussex County.

That project, completed in 1974, created the “parcelized” map that the county uses today, although they’re continually adding layers of information.

Back in the early 1970s, though, the county was still mainly farmland, Lank pointed out. They started by looking at the commercial uses around Georgetown, and some pockets of residential property, and established districts where they thought they might be needed in the future.

Then they had the map enlarged and took it around to public workshops. They hadn’t received much input up to that point — for or against — but Lank remembered considerable uproar during that time as people started getting used to the concept of zoning laws.

One fellow, impatient for approval to place a mobile home, had actually thrown a flowerpot at one of the commissioners, he recalled.

“Luckily, they were artificial flowers, so they didn’t have any weight,” Lank pointed out.

He defended the plan they’d come up with, although he admitted they may have “looked too far ahead” when they established a dimensional commercial zone along Routes 1 and 113.

“I wouldn’t say that was in error — I’d just say they go a little ahead of themselves,” he said. “And Route 1 was really difficult, because it was just scattered — there was a house here converted to an office, a house there converted to an antique store, a convenience store, a gas station, a Sears Roebuck, a little shopping center — it ran all the way from Five Points to Rehoboth.

“It still looks about the same — just a heck of a lot denser,” Lank added.

He advanced from draftsman to planning technician, and then became assistant director in the late ’70s, under then-Director Roland Derrickson.

Derrickson retired in 1984, and Lank moved into the top spot.

“I’ve been here ever since. I figured I was going to last about six months,” he said.

There was considerable controversy surrounding a zoning code revamp in 1985, just as Lank became director. He remembered 800 or so contractors piling into the Sussex Central High School auditorium for the public hearing, and Jim Fuqua, then attorney for the P&Z, taking off his shoe and using it as a gavel in an effort to restore order.

He also remembered Derrickson joking that he was retiring at just the right time. But, Lank admitted, things had started changing not long thereafter.

“We’ve had a steady flow ever since,” he said. “There were a couple of times when things slowed up a little bit, but never any real downtime.”

He said there have been periodic peaks — especially whenever property owners heard rumor of impending moratorium.

“Twice, we’ve had a big rush because somebody used the word ‘moratorium,’” he said. (As long as applications come in before the cutoff date, they stay live.) “When that word comes up, everybody jumps to get ahead.”

Lank said they are also seeing a rush at present — not because of moratorium rumors, but because of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s proposed anti-sprawl legislation.

“Central sewer and community systems and 4-acre lots — that’s really caused some people to jump,” he pointed out.

“And I think some are just trying to beat the regulations that the state’s proposing,” he continued. “Nobody’s come out and told me that, but we’re thinking that’s what going on.”

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has a year-end target for implementation of sweeping pollution control strategy regulations. Increased wetland buffers and decreased allowable nitrogen and phosphorus levels (from individual or community septic systems) will likely reduce allowable densities once those regulations come online.

“Shane (Abbott, P&Z assistant director) has 30 or 40 subdivisions that have come in over the last couple months,” Lank noted. “We have close to the number of subdivisions applications this year that we had last year.”

That, despite the fact that last year’s 61 total applications broke the previous record of 56 from 2003 (which broke the previous record of 50 in 2002).

And it’s only July.

However, despite sometimes heated opposition from county residents concerned over development trends, Lank defended the commission members’ ability and integrity.

And while County Council may have to deal with certain political pressures, Lank said the P&Z is effectively isolated.

“I don’t see council members calling commissioners, telling them what to do,” he said. “I don’t think they waver from the code.”

He said the commission members (especially Allen) might express a little disgruntlement when council decides to shelve their recommendations and go another way. (Allen occasionally quips that if council approved a project they denied, the P&Z should let them deal with the site plan reviews, too.)

However, Lank said those reversals only illustrated the fact that commissioners operate in a political vacuum.

“And I think they’re more dedicated than people give them credit for,” he added.

Lank said much of what commissioners do involves judgment calls on whether something allowed “by right” might still be inappropriate because it isn’t in character with the surrounding community.

“Litigation goes on all the time when we reject applications — people may appeal to council in the process, and they may appeal to the court,” Lank explained “And it typically has to do with the reasoning behind the decision that it was out of character.

“If you have a parcel that was surrounded by large parcels, and you’re trying to create 7,500-square-foot lots, is that appropriate?” he asked. “Or the commission looks at it and says, ‘Well, it’s all wooded — they’re going to take out most of the trees for sewage treatment and the stormwater facilities, and the lots are so small they’re going to clear all the trees for the house and the driveway and the shed or whatever.’”

Lank said he personally likes residential planned communities (RPCs) — although size is starting to become a factor with some projects approaching the scope of medium-sized towns.

“I guess we’re going to find out here soon,” he said. “We have a couple under construction, with the Peninsula and Americana Bayside.” (Peninsula is north of the Indian River. Americana Bayside, now called simply Bayside, is west of Fenwick Island on Route 54.)

“Neither one… Well, because of the size, there was a little opposition to Americana Bayside,” he recalled. “There was little to no opposition to the Peninsula project.

“I think both developers seem to be environmentally sensitive,” he pointed out. “They’ve given a lot of consideration to comments they’ve received from neighbors — I guess we’ll find out.”

Lank said P&Z has never had problems keeping RPCs on track. As he explained, the commission approves a master plan for the entire project first, but once developers start working in the field, they almost always have to modify their plans on paper.

That usually means lower — rather than higher — density, and additional improvements as phasing generates updated plans.

“Typically, they’re as good or better than what they originally submitted,” Lank said of the end result.

Still, he admitted those projects could lead to additional development in the surrounding countryside, and looking back, he reflected on how Sussex County had evolved over the years.

“I was born and raised in Seaford, and you see the changes,” he said. “My grandmother lived in Rehoboth, and I’d ride down Route 1 as a youngster and you’d see all open land, maybe a little produce stand here and there, or a small commercial piece — a driving range, that type of stuff.”

He said he remembered things from those days that most people had forgotten about.

“Seeing what it’s grown to today, sometimes you wish it was the way it used to be, a little,” Lank said

Some things have remained the same, at least. Lank said he still handles most of his own secretarial work, and comes in on Saturdays to type up the P&Z meeting minutes. (He does half and Abbot does half).

And he still spends less time in his office and more time at the counter helping applicants — sometimes giving them a bit of good-natured grilling to break the ice. (“You want to subdivide? Why?”)

He declined to speculate on a retirement date. After 35 years at the P&Z, Lank said he still has plenty to do, and he still enjoys his job.