Neighbors fight against Oakwood Homes applications

More than a dozen residents of Hoot Owl Lane near Dagsboro came out to a Sussex County Board of Adjustment meeting on Oct. 2 to voice their opposition to a special-use exception application filed by Oakwood Homes.

The company was seeking a special-use exception to permit a manufactured home on a lot less than .75 acres. Gil Fleming of Oakwood Homes said his company was informed that the home had been placed on an undersized lot after the manufactured home had been placed. He noted the County had provided his company with a permit to place the manufactured home there.

“My salesperson called to do due diligence before we purchased the lot and was told by a County person that it was AR-2 and was fine for modular homes. There is no roof-pitch restrictions, there were no other restrictions mentioned.

“Then, before we closed on the property, Mr. Hitch, who started this subdivision, signed off… We acted upon that and built the house.”

Fleming said he wasn’t aware there was an issue until he was contacted by the County on Sept. 13, informing him of the problem and stating they would hold all inspections until the matter had gone before the Board of Adjustment.

“At this point, we already had the house constructed on-site… We spent tens of thousands of dollars to put a house out there. I don’t see grounds of malice at this point. We were given a permit … and now we’re stuck in this position.”

Fleming also testified that he believed the home would not negatively impact neighboring properties, adding the modular home in question was permanently anchored, with all utilities connected.

“It’s a fine-looking home. It’s a display home,” said Fleming. “We don’t think that counts in any way as detrimental.”

Two people in the audience said they were in favor of the application but chose not to speak during public comment. Another 15 people in attendance said they opposed the application, with the County having received five additional letters of opposition.

Board Member John Mills noted that, since the .75-acre lot restriction was enacted, the board has only given one or two special-use exception approvals — emphasizing that the applicants in those cases had showed extreme hardship.

“It is not conducive to our neighborhood,” said Kenneth Leib, whose home is next to the property. “It’s not constructed like any other home in our neighborhood.”

Leib also stated that the former developer of the street, Howard Hitch, no longer owns property on the street. He added that he had called Hitch regarding the hearing and was told “what he signed gave some company permission, with the intent they put a standard home on the property.”

Resident Charles Campbell stated that he is not a licensed real estate agent or an attorney but was still able to find the code restrictions in less than two hours.

“These folks sat here and told you, and couldn’t find this information out from a guy who’s supposedly been in the business for years — an attorney, salespeople… I found it out within an hour or so.”

Campbell made note of the subdivision’s covenants, which state “no structure, either temporary or permanent — a trailer, tent, barn, treehouse or other similar outhouse or structure — shall be placed on any lot... These restrictions may be enforced by Howard Hitch, his heirs, executors… or any property owner.”

“None of us property owners signed off on any of this.”

Campbell said he was told by a County official that the permit for the 100-by-170-foot lot had been issued in error.

“He told us flat out, ‘Mr. Campbell, this house does not belong here.’”

Campbell said there are no other homes on the street that are manufactured in type, and called attention to a petition signed by 20 of the 26 property owners stating they opposed the manufactured home being there.

“The property we bought is the single biggest investment we’ve ever made,” he said. “Down the road, I don’t want to lose 10 or 20 percent or anything of my investment because of something non-conforming.”

Nancy Butters, who built her home 32 years ago, said she’s concerned about the precedent that could be set if the application were to be approved and affect other neighboring empty lots.

“All the other houses fit in together,” she said, stating that most are modest ranch-style homes. “This one does not.”

Fleming said Hitch was well aware of what was going to be placed on the property.

“We did not move forward with any intent to cause harm to any neighboring property owners.”

He added the home was a display model, and $70,000 was spent on purchasing the lot and $12,000 was spent setting the home there.

Fleming said that if they were denied the special-use exception, it would place the company and the property owner in a huge financial hardship.

“We’re caught in a situation — had a permit not been issued, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Planning & Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell said an inspection had been conducted on Sept. 12.

“The only inspection we did was a footer inspection, which means, at that time, there should not have been a home on that property — because we do a footer inspection, and then the home gets placed,” she said. “The only time we did an inspection, there was no home on the property.”

Fleming said the home was on the property on Aug. 24. He provided a written timeline of happenings on the property as evidence to the board.

Board Member E. Brent Workman asked why, if Fleming was issued a hold on all future inspections, the company continued its work to the property.

“Those were land improvements,” replied Fleming. “It was my true feeling we were not going to have an issue with this… We’d already gone this far. We’d already purchased the property for a lot of money.”

“Don’t you think it’s out of the character of the other homes there?” asked Workman.

“It’s not exactly like the other homes there,” responded Fleming. “I have to go off of what I’m given.”

The Board decided to defer their decision and to leave the record opened for the limited purpose of allowing the Board to ask staff questions regarding permitting.

Oakwood asks for same exception in a second location

In addition to the on Hoot Owl Lane, Oakwood homes has filed a similar special-use exception application for a modular home placed on a 175-by-130 lot on Julie Court near Frankford.

Cornwell said the County also received letters of opposition regarding that application.

Fleming said the property owner there, James Brown, lost his home on another piece of property due to a fire. Instead of rebuilding, the Browns chose to place a manufactured home on another lot they own.

“I’m just trying to put a roof over my head,” said Brown. “This is all I have; this is all I can afford.”

Brown said the modular home is 1,300 square feet in size, and has two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

“It does not look like a trailer… Other than the pitch of the roof, you cannot tell.”

Brown said he doesn’t believe that home would have a negative impact on neighboring or adjacent properties, although he admitted there were no other mobile homes on the road.

“I was surprised to find there was any opposition.”

At the hearing on the Julie Court application, there were two audience members who expressed support of the application; however, they chose not to speak. Three people in attendance said they opposed to the home being there.

Neighboring property owner Nicole Harrell, a licensed Realtor who worked for a land surveyor for a decade, voiced her displeasure at the situation.

“This is out of character,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a trailer park. If I did, I would live in Plantation Park. I just think it’s unfortunate it’s slipped through the cracks.”

Harrell said any hardship possibly endured by the company and/or property owner was self-inflicted, as they chose to work on the property even after they received notice of a hold on inspection.

“It’s a lack of respect,” she added, noting that there have been individuals burning trash on that property as well. She said she believed the home would negatively affect the value of neighboring properties, as “mobile-home communities are selling for a lot less.”

Sandy Prettyman, who lives on Owl Lane, said she wasn’t sure if she wanted to speak before the board, but after hearing all the testimony, she said, she felt obligated to do so.

“I looked in Plantation Park, I looked in Shady Dell, I looked at a 5-acre piece of property, and then I chose here, and chose the neighborhood.”

Prettyman said she’s concerned about the precedent that could be set if the applications were to be approved.

“The guy from Oakwood Homes has been doing this for 18 years. He knows what a three-quarter-acre lot is. That’s what I find difficult to swallow here tonight. Eighteen years… He knows. Your decision is going to make a big difference in Sussex County.”

A decision on the Julie Court application was also deferred until the board’s Oct. 16 meeting.