County revisits homes in commercial zones

Sussex County Council members reconvened for a workshop-format discussion following the main body of the June 21 council meeting, and lunch, hashing out preliminary guidelines for several draft ordinances before a sparse audience.

Council Members George Cole and Vance Phillips explained some of the details, later in the day, especially relating to (1) a new commercial district, with further restricted residential uses, and (2) open space in new developments.

Cole expressed concern with the way the new Commercial-Residential (CR-1) district was shaping up. He noted efforts over the years to continue reducing allowable residential densities in commercial districts — the Sea Colony towers in Bethany Beach went up at 36 units per acre, then the county cut that down to 18 and then to 12, where it stands today.

He recommended cutting that again, to four per acre, but said Office of State Planning Coordination’s (OSPC’s) Constance Holland had advised removing the residential component in commercial districts entirely, as a permitted use.

Talk turned to closing the existing commercial (C-1) district — all existing rights to build residential would be grandfathered, but any new applicants would have to seek high-density residential (HR-1, HR-2).

Developers could still build residential in the proposed CR-1 district, but they’d have to go through the conditional use process first.

From county code, all the extras listed as conditional uses are on the list in the first place because they are “generally of a public or semipublic character and are essential and desirable for the general convenience and welfare.”

However, the code continues, “because of the nature of the use, the importance of the relationship to the Comprehensive Plan and possible impact not only on neighboring properties but on a large section of the county,” conditional uses require “exercise of planning judgment.”

Extra layer of review in hand, Cole said they’d started talking about a lower bound of zero residential — but then conversation veered off toward an undefined upper bound.

“Yes, they’d have to go to conditional use, but there’s no ceiling,” he said. “And I think the coastal towns would be concerned if we adopted more than 12 units per acre.”

(Again, 12 per acre is the max density currently permitted in commercial districts, based on a minimum dwelling space of 3,630 square feet per unit).

Cole said he’d argued with Council President Finley Jones that there wasn’t a town in Sussex County looking for even eight units an acre (but Jones had noted 16 units per acre allowances in Milford).

Council Member Vance Phillips offered justification for an undefined upper limit. “Ordinances should be designed to transcend the political environment of the day, and should be able to continue to function for many, many years,” he said. “The fact is, we have a cap on density now — in the political process.”

Phillips said it was becoming increasingly rare that the county approved densities of more than two or three units per acre. “It is not possible, given the political climate of the day, to approve excess densities,” he said. “But we have to have a code that’s flexible enough to accommodate changing times, and we don’t know what things are going to be like 10 or 20 years from now.”

Cole also questioned the semi-public nature of the workshop. Council had opened the discussion to the people in attendance — but they were all professional planners, he said, and he considered their input one-sided.

Both Cole and Phillips agreed the open space ordinance was still rather nebulous — Phillips called it “a muddled mess.”

Cole is still looking for a concrete definition, and also how active versus passive open space should be weighted toward the required percentage of open space as related to total developable land.

Phillips said he was concerned that council might create unintended consequences with such legislation, and had to move carefully. “By creating certain code requirements, we could accidentally limit the affordability of homes in this county,” he said. “Better developments provide plenty of open space, and are attractive, but they’re often more pricey, as well.”

In other business, earlier in the day, council recognized efforts to provide housing to Sussex County’s working poor, especially as administered by Bill Lecates (Community Development & Housing) and Deb Schiffer (InterFaith Mission).

Schiffer accepted a check for $50,000, which she said would help InterFaith keep rents affordable at a new eight-unit building in Georgetown. “Because of the economic structure, it wouldn’t have been feasible for these workers to live here without spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent,” Schiffer noted. “And InterFaith wouldn’t have been able to afford to provide this housing without the county’s support.

“We could have filled it three times over, but we’ll take it eight at a time,” Schiffer noted.

County Administrator Bob Stickels reminded local contractors of an upcoming Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) workshop on sediment and stormwater management, slated for July 14 at Delaware Tech (Owens Campus, Georgetown), and council made their final decision on road relocations necessitated by planned runway extension at the Sussex County Airport.

Despite Georgetown’s preference that traffic be rerouted to South Bedford Street (by Marker’s Deli), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding would have come up short for that option. Council unanimously approved the Arrow Safety Road bypass instead, but Jones assured Georgetown staff in attendance that they would consider improvements at the other intersection as well.

Cole mentioned a problem with signs directing traffic to nearby real estate — they were in violation of both county and state code (they can only advertise for the property they rest upon). However, he noted a problem with split jurisdiction — the county enforces their code on private property, and the state enforces in the rights of way.

Also, according to Cole, these were very inexpensive signs, and real estate companies seemed willing to simply replace them day after day if state/county officials continued to pull them up. He suggested some kind of fine be attached to the ordinance, but in the meantime, asked Stickels to look into the enforcement issue.