Public voices opinions on proposed density calculation change

The Sussex County Council on Oct. 9 held a public hearing on an ordinance to amend the County’s zoning density calculation, which would exclude streams, rivers and wetland areas from being included in such calculations.

“I introduced this ordinance,” said Councilman I.G. Burton. “For public knowledge, the way we currently calculate density is on the entire parcel. Whether that’s two units, four units — whatever it is, it’s the entire parcel.

“This ordinance would subtract out the State tidal wetlands from the calculation. So it doesn’t refer to federal wetlands, it doesn’t refer to isolated wetlands. It’s the State tidal wetlands. This has been in our last two Comprehensive Land Use Plans [CLUP] and is in the current Comprehensive Land Use Plan that is in draft. It has been on the minds of this county for a long period of time. I felt it was time to bring it forward for discussion and a public hearing.”

The County received 24 letters in support of the change, seven in opposition and three that just commented on the proposed ordinance.

Councilman Rob Arlett asked what the goal of the proposed ordinance was.

“Is the goal of the ordinance to reduce building? Is the goal of the ordinance to ensure that our environment is protected and safeguarded? I would like to know, ultimately, what is the goal of the ordinance so when we move forward with the public hearing, the public has that in mind.”

“The goal is to do all of the above,” said Burton. “The density calculation of wetlands in our environmentally-sensitive areas need to be protected. To be able to calculate density on land you can’t build on just never made sense. The goal is not necessarily to decrease the housing, but to properly calculate the way in which density is defined. The benefit of doing it that way lends to a better environment around those areas.”

Arlett said that the County, in its CLUP meetings, has been told by consultants that, no matter what county government does, it “will not change the desire for people to be here.”

“If the consultant says there’s going to be 30,000 new people coming into this county over the next 15, 20 years... no matter what we do here, that same 20,000 or 30,000 people are still coming. I think without all that being said, that’s the ultimate choice we have to do… Ultimately, I think that’s something we as a community have to understand — they’re still coming.”

They’re “coming for a reason,” he added. “If we don’t keep that reason alive, then those 20- or 30,000 people may find another place to go, and we would be the ultimate loser on that.”

“We should be going for quality,” added Councilman George Cole. “We can’t let those things dictate what we want our quality of life to be here in Sussex County.”

Former Planning & Zoning Commissioner Mike Johnson spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance.

“I always said when I was on the commission, ‘Just because you own a piece of ground doesn’t mean you can build a house on it.’ I don’t see this as an issue of takeaway — I see it as an issue of common sense.”

Johnson said the people of Sussex County are fortunate to have the environment the area has.

“If we don’t do something to protect it, I’m very concerned that the world we know here in Sussex County is going to change.”

James Baxter IV, whose family owns farmland in Georgetown, voiced his opposition to the proposed ordinance.

“Think about what this wetlands density does to this 126-acre parcel of land. My land is an asset. My land is my equity,” said Baxter.

He added that he hoped the council would consult with banks as to how the ordinance could affect farmers.

“If I were to go to a bank and say, ‘I want to put this property up because I need a line of credit… If you say that piece of property is now only worth half of its value — because if you take those wetlands out of it, it gives them a zero value, and then you take out the buffers and give them a zero value — now I’m only left with a sliver in between each one of those ditches that are of any kind of value to me to borrow money against to operate my business.”

Baxter said he protects his personal wetlands like he protects his family.

“I want to protect this stuff, but you have to protect my way of life if you expect me to protect that land.”

He noted that wetlands are already protected, as it is state law that development cannot occur on wetlands.

“In my opinion, all you’re trying to do at this time is send those houses that were going to be built at a higher density, which people are going to buy — all you’re doing is sending those people my way. I don’t want them; keep them over there.”

Lewes resident Ric Moore argued that equity “fundamentally is justice.”

“The current economics does not value natural capital, which is what we’re protecting with this ordinance. There is a fundamental value to protect these wetlands, the wildlife… We don’t value it when we don’t trade it in the market, but it has far greater value.

“When I studied economics, I asked my professor, ‘What is the market clearing price for air to breathe and water to drink?’ It’s an absurd question. People kill over that, and I don’t mean that metaphorically.”

He said the County needs to be protecting farmland and farmers as well.

“This part of the state was rural. Why are we trying to turn it into an urban metropolis, which will in fact destroy the greatest resource we have? ... We have to find ways to protect the interests of everyone here.”

Moore said coastal wetlands are essential in order to capture carbon emissions.

“We need to look at the entire state, not just the county.”

Lisa Wool, who spoke on behalf of the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, said they support the proposed ordinance.

“We see this as a way not only to protect what has been spent but what will be spent,” she said, noting that the State of Delaware has already spent money and made an effort in protecting its waterways. “We also want to make sure this is done correctly and the needs of the farmers are taken into account…”

She added that they believe the council should look at passing the ordinance as a “long-term, good financial choice.”

Jeff Stone of the Sussex Alliance of Responsible Growth spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance, noting that 68 percent of county residents, when polled for the upcoming CLUP review, noted conservation and land use are of high concern.

“Sussex County is the most environmentally-sensitive and arguably the most environmentally-valuable location in the state.”

Sussex County resident and civil engineer Jim Eriksen cautioned the council about detrimental effects he said the ordinance could create.

“This ordinance can potentially lower density, thus creating additional sprawl,” he said.

Arlett said he wanted to the keep public record on the ordinance open past that day’s hearing, noting that he’d specifically like to hear comment from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

“I think DNREC is charged to protect these areas. They’re not on record chiming in on this, and I think they should.”

The council voted unanimously to leave public comment open for 30 additional days, to allow for written comment.

To read the proposed ordinance in its entirety, visit


By Maria Counts

Staff Reporter