County approves commercial zoning near Dagsboro

Despite the objections of Dagsboro officials, Sussex County Council members on April 21 voted to approve a change from agricultural to commercial zoning for three parcels adjacent to Dagsboro town limits.

The roughly 19-acre property, near the intersection of Route 113 and 26, had been zoned AR-1, agricultural-residential. Tuesday’s 3-1 vote by the council changed that to CR-1, commercial-residential, opening the way for the development of commercial pad sites and homes.

Owners PGS Properties LLC had previously approached the Town of Dagsboro for annexation into the town, but according to Sussex County Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank, the town had delayed a decision on that request after receiving a recommendation during the required state Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) review that annexation not be approved by the town due to the lack of availability of sewer service in the area at that time.

“It was pending for quite some time,” Lank said, noting that PGS had since withdrawn its annexation request and instead pursued rezoning with the county.

But things have changed in Dagsboro since then, both in terms of the sewer service and the minds of town officials.

“In the meantime, sewer has now become available,” commented Councilman George Cole. “Now we know there’s capacity, but PGS has pulled out.”

During public hearings on the three applications for rezoning associated with the property, in February and March, Dagsboro officials had formally opposed the rezoning, saying the town had started the annexation process for the property and now wanted to complete it, prior to any rezoning.

County Councilwoman Joan Deaver (D-3rd) on Tuesday agreed with that sentiment.

“It’s in the town’s growth area. The mayor came here representing the entire town, asking for a denial. I feel it would adversely affect neighboring properties, that it would adversely affect the town,” she said.

Deaver said she would prefer that if the council was going to approve commercial use on the property that it be through conditional-use, in which the council would have to approve a specific use, instead of rezoning, in which a long list of commercial uses are by-right.

“The town might have more say in what gets put out there,” she said of conditional use. “They could get a Sam’s and a Wal-Mart and a lot of nasty things. There’s no reason why we have to zone it commercial.”

Deaver further said she felt the decision to rezone the property fell outside the spirit of a recent set of memorandums-of-understanding that were sent out by the county council to municipalities, agreeing to work to cooperate and ensure notification of the other party in cases when decisions made by either party would affect shared areas of interest, such as the growth zones around the towns.

“We have a memorandum-of-understanding, and if these things don’t mean anything, we shouldn’t sign them,” she argued.

But the council as a whole followed the recommendation of the county Planning & Zoning Commission, which had voted for the rezoning, citing, in part, that a portion of the property was already zoned as commercial, that it is in the county’s developing district and that it is adjacent to or inside the established commercial corridor of Route 113.

“We listened to the concerns of the town,” said Councilman Michael H. Vincent (R-1st) in voting for the rezoning. “This council cannot require a land owner to annex into a town. Legally, we cannot do that.”

Councilman Samuel R. Wilson Jr. (R-2nd) agreed, saying that Dagsboro had lost its chance to control the fate of the property.

“The mayor had the opportunity to annex that future property, which he chose not to do. And it seems like he’s playing hard-to-get. He should have made that decision back when he had that opportunity,” Wilson said. “No doubt, that person deserves it,” he said of the owner’s request for rezoning.

To Deaver’s concerns about a potential big-box store on the property, he replied. “It would be foolish for people to build something if people weren’t going to use it.”

Council President Vance Phillips (R-5th) also voted in favor of the change of zoning.

“It’s in our comprehensive plan, and it’s important we follow our plan,” he said. “We’re criticized sometimes for not planning. Yet, clearly, in our comprehensive plan this property is in our developing district. It was vetted by Planning & Zoning and found worthy,” he added, noting that the change in zoning would help the property “come into conformity with properties in that area.”

Councilman George Cole (R-4th) abstained from the three votes on rezoning the property, citing a conflict-of-interest on two of the three, as he has done business with the owner of those parcels for more than 20 years.

Council adopts

new grant policy

County council members voted unanimously on April 21 to adopt a new Discretionary Community Grant Policy, which slightly alters how the council doles out discretionary funds in council members’ individual grant accounts for their districts.

County Finance Director Susan Webb noted Tuesday that the new policy allows the total amount of discretionary grant funding to be set annually, with the county budget, so it can fluctuate. The council reduced its discretionary grant funding just a few months ago, in a nod to the economic downturn and budget shortfalls.

“It’s basically what we’ve been doing, with a couple of tweaks,” Webb explained of the new policy.

Under the policy, those requesting grants send a letter to their appropriate council member. Webb then makes a determination as to which grants fit the council’s basic requirements to be considered for grants, which include a requirement to be a non-profit organization, as well as for the organization to either be located inside the county or to be requesting a grant on behalf of county residents. Those requests then go on a council agenda, where the council takes a vote.

Deaver said she had received a number of questions about the grant policy from her constituents. Among them: Why not make all requests public, as opposed just those granted? Deaver also asked if Webb verified that the requesting organizations were certified 501(c)3 groups.

“With this policy, yes,” Webb confirmed, adding that she does personally know some repeat applicants are eligible after having verified them in connection to previous grant requests. “That’s why I inserted myself in the determination of a lot of these grants,” she noted.

Webb said she also verifies that larger grants are spent as was stated in the related requests but that in the cases of the many small grants the council makes, “It would be cumbersome on the accounting end to … check if they’re used exactly for the purpose that was given.” She noted that a particular council member might know of a need in the community and have oversight of the grant. “With them living in that area, there are sort of internal checks and balances,” she said.

Council keeps tabs

on state legislation

Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin presented a legislative update to council members on Tuesday, offering an update on legislation adopted and pending in the Delaware General Assembly that might be of interest or concern to Sussex County.

Godwin reported that he has continued to voice the council’s opposition to House Bill 65, which would increase the Sussex council’s membership from five members to seven members by adding two at-large seats. He noted that he had personally visited Legislative Hall on April 28 to maintain that position on the council’s behalf.

Supported by the council and now state law is Senate Bill 7, the eminent domain bill that limits how state, county and local government can use eminent domain powers to take private property.

Godwin noted that Phillips had asked him to get a legal opinion about SB 48, as to whether the bill would hamper the council’s ability to make its own appointment to the Soil Conservation Board. Godwin said the opinion was that it did not.

The so-called “puppy mill bill,” HB 45, remains a concern for the county, Godwin noted, because dog control responsibilities will come to the county at the end of this year. “The legislators know we’re opposed to it and why,” he said, adding that he believes the bill has been slowed down since its introduction.

SB49, which imposes limitations on deed restrictions as pertain to solar energy, has also been opposed by the county council. Godwin said, “I have made the legislature aware that you are not in support because it removes individual property rights.”

Godwin said several newly introduced bills should be on the council’s radar, including SB 57 and SB 58, which change the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He described the changes as an attempt to make the regulations a little tighter and more restrictive and said he’d like the council’s comments on the bills before their next meeting.

SB 59 caused Godwin and County Administrator David Baker to “race to Dover” two weeks ago, Godwin told council, as it would require changes to the county building code as relate to energy efficiency. “We didn’t find a lot of discomfort with the theme and spirit of the bill,” Godwin noted, “but we had issues with three items.”

Godwin said he had sent a letter to the bill’s sponsor about those concerns, had spoken with an aid and had made it clear that the county wanted to be part of any discussions between then and Tuesday, April 28, when the bill was promised to be on top of the Senate’s agenda.

Some pending bills that Godwin mentioned to the council on Tuesday would only pertain to New Castle County, he noted. But, he said, “The spirit of these bills, if they came this way, would cause concern. Sometimes these things creep from upstate to downstate over a few sessions.”

That legislation includes some land-use bills, which would add more requirements on land-use issues, such as service levels for schools and roadways and natural-resources impact, and how those relate to subdivision approvals.

A supporter of that increased scrutiny later spoke to the council, encouraging them to view the potential changes as a way to allow the county to look at issues such as school capacity and roadways when approving subdivisions.

Finally, Godwin noted HB 124 – a gun-control bill – which he said again only pertains to New Castle County, for now, but which would affect county-owned or leased lands there.

“They’ve had some problems with people bringing guns into libraries and firing firearms at county parks,” Godwin noted, emphasizing that Sussex doesn’t even have any county parks. He said he would report back to council on how the bill was being embraced by the General Assembly. “It may reflect on how they look on gun control in this county.”

Also on April 21:

• Baker reported that the revamped South Coastal Library in Bethany Beach had opened the day before. “It was extremely busy,” said County Librarian Carol Fitzgerald, who had personally served as a greeter. “Everybody very awed by the work done to create a really amazing library.”

Baker thanked the Friends of the South Coastal Library (FOSCL) for their assistance in raising private money totaling nearly $2 million for the project, as well as library staff and the county engineering department for completing the project.

• The council voted unanimously not to offer a lease extension to Delaware National Bank for space in the county’s west office complex. County staff said they expected to need some or all the 8,600 square feet of office space there as soon as 2011, when the bank’s current lease expires.

The issue was raised as Godwin has worked to negotiate an amendment to the existing lease that would allow the county to reclaim 2,100 square feet of space that would allow the county addressing department to move to the west complex and, as a result, allow the Clerk of the Peace office to move back into the main administrative offices, rather than leasing space elsewhere.

Bank officials had wanted an indication on whether the lease would be renewed so as to make a determination on where to move the employees that would be displaced by the shuffling of space. The bank has leased the space from the county for more than 10 years.

• Council members unanimously approved a wastewater agreement with the Bethany Bay community on Railway Road, in an extension of the Millville Expansion of the Bethany Beach Sewer District. Construction is expected to take 120 days, with $60,000 in administrative costs and $455,000 in construction costs.

• County Engineer Mike Izzo asked the council to certify substantial completion of one of several contracts under the Millville Expansion of the Bethany Beach Sanitary Sewer District. This contract was for work in the northwest section of the project area and the north end of Railway Road.