Sussex BoA set to vote on manufactured-home exception

Neighbors ready to appeal should County approve application

Date Published: 
Nov. 17, 20177

The residents of Irons Acres are ready for a fight. The community of 26 lots and 21 homes is awaiting a decision from the Sussex County Board of Adjustment this week as to whether a manufactured home that Oakwood Homes placed on a lot on their street will be granted a special-use exception and be allowed to remain there.

“If this is a microcosm of what is going on in the county as a whole, we have a lot of issues,” said Irons Acres property owner Charles Campbell.

Campbell said that while he was out of town earlier this year, he received a call that a trailer home was being moved onto the vacant lot on his street. Having been told previously that the lot would have a single-family home constructed on it, he called the County to ask about permitting.

He contacted the County on Sept. 12 and was told a zoning inspector would call him. After not receiving a call back, Campbell called again on Sept. 15, and shortly thereafter, a County employee arrived and stated that a permit for the property had been issued in error and that the home should not be there. Campbell said the employee also told him a stop-work order would be issued.

“They came in the following Monday, drilled a well, graded the property, put a driveway in,” said Campbell, noting that developer Oakwood Homes had been made aware of the permitting issue on Sept. 13.

“[Oakwood Homes] knew that there was a problem, and [they] just kept on going. These people have basically done just whatever they want to do.”

Campbell noted that Oakwood Homes has a similar application also set to be voted on, for a property and manufactured home on Julie Court.

Per county code, a manufactured home may not be placed on a lot measuring less than .75 acres; however, the company was granted the permits to place the homes, in error, as both lots are less than .75 acres in size.

“They specifically wrote these ordinances to protect people’s homes and their values by not allowing trailers in certain places,” said Campbell.

On the application for the lot in question, Gil Fleming of Oakwood Homes wrote that the uniqueness of the property includes that “the lot is apparently smaller than others in the subdivision.” However, Campbell said 24 of the 26 lots are 100 feet by 171 feet, with the other two lots being larger.

In the subdivision’s restrictive covenants, it states, “No structure of a temporary character and no trailer, tent, barn, tree-house, or other similar outbuilding or structure shall be placed on any lot as shown of the aforesaid plot, at any time, either temporarily or provided…”

The restrictive covenants also states, “These restrictions may be enforced by Howard Hitch, his Heirs, Executors, Administrators or Assigns, or any property owner… All lots owners must comply with the Sussex County Zoning Ordinances governing AR-2 districts.”

Campbell said that, after retaining Sussex County attorney Richard Berl Jr., he and his neighbors were under the impression they had a “slam dunk,” however, the Board continued to defer its vote on the matter.

At the Nov. 7 BOA hearing, Board Member John Mills stated, “I was really disappointed that there wasn’t something hard-copy. It was more of an opinion or what have you.”

Assistant County Attorney Jamie Sharp noted to the board that two opinions from appraisers were provided to them by one of the residents in opposition to the application.

In a packet presented to the board at the application’s first hearing, Campbell included a letter from Carmean Appraisal Group stating, “The manufactured home could have a negative impact on the values of the existing homes.”

A letter from broker William Emmert Sr. with RE/MAX Realty Group was also in the packet, and it stated, “It would seem from my general inspection of the community that all construction is either stick-built or modular, with NO mobile homes.

“I am a 44-year Delaware real estate salesman/broker and my opinion is that values in ‘Irons Acres’ will be negatively impacted by some 20-25 percent with the addition of a mobile home.”

“In well over a month, we still had board members saying they had never seen any kind of evidence that we provided that our homes would be devalued, when the packet I gave them clearly had those things in it,” said Campbell. “It seems to us they either don’t read that information or they don’t care about that information, and that’s very scary to us.”

“According to the real estate letter and the appraiser, collectively, if we tried to sell our houses, we’d lose a million dollars. That’s what it amounts to, at minimum,” added Phyllis Campbell, Charles Campbell’s mother. “They’re talking about him losing money,” she said of Fleming and Oakwood Homes, “but what about us? We did nothing but follow the law.”

Campbell also pointed out that, on the application, Fleming wrote that the addition of the manufactured home would not alter the essential character of the neighborhood, as “there are mobile homes in the subdivision.”

“He lied,” Campbell said.

In his letter to the Board, Berl also called into question how Oakwood Homes could have been unaware that a modular home could not be placed on such a small lot.

“According to its website, Oakwood Homes first opened for business in 1986, and its manager, Gil Fleming, who signed the application, has been part of the manufactured housing industry for over a decade. It is inconceivable that Oakwood would be unaware of the three-quarter-acre requirement that has existed for some time, and the Board is well aware that Oakwood has been active in Sussex County for some time.”

At the Oct. 2 public hearing, 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.

With the Board having deferred their decision three times, Campbell said the property owners on in Irons Acres feel as if their concern is not being taken seriously.

“It’s frustrating to us as homeowners… We went back there the second time, they had done nothing.”

He noted that Board Member Ellen Magee, who was not in attendance for the Oct. 2 public hearing but had listened to the audio recording of the hearing and reviewed the application file, had appeared to him to be more versed in the application than some of the other board members.

The property owners of Irons Acres take pride in the fact that the community is not extremely restrictive in terms of what people can do with their homes.

“One of the reasons I moved here is the fact that we felt secure with these restrictions that Mr. Hitch placed, that we were living in a neighborhood [where] if there’s a different kind of shutter,” that is allowed, said Campbell. “We wanted to live in a neighborhood where there were some basic restrictions, but we didn’t want to be in a place like Bay Colony, where I can’t leave my garage door open or my boat in my driveway… Not every home on the street is the same.”

“We all get along. If you’re doing something that really annoys your neighbor, your neighbor lets you know, and it’s done,” added Ken Leib, whose property is immediately adjacent to the property in question.

Under BoA requirements, applicants for a special use-exception must meet certain thresholds for the exception to be granted, including showing ample reason that the granting of the exception will not adversely affect the values or uses of adjacent properties.

Another requirement is proving that “exceptional practical difficulty” exists — that there is something particularly unusual about the situation that makes other remedies impractical and therefore makes it not possible to meet the code requirements.

At the Oct. 2 public hearing, Fleming said the developer had spent $70,000 to purchase the lot the lot and $12,000 was spent setting the home there.

“In the very beginning, they said it was up to the applicant, Oakwood Homes, to prove that it would not change our neighborhood. [County Attorney Jamie Sharp] told them on more than one occasion that the fact that it’s there [already] is completely irrelevant,” said Campbell earlier this week. “It seems to me they’re trying to circumvent the law, not enforce the law.”

Campbell said most of his neighbors are waiting with baited breath to see the Board’s vote on Monday, as it will directly impact all of them.

“This is an older neighborhood, but people are making an investment in it for their future. They’re investing not only their money but their time, trying to make this a nice neighborhood. It’s sad, it really is.”

Campbell said that while he and Leib hired Berl to oppose the special-use exception application, if the Board votes to grant the application, the community will come together to pay to appeal the decision.

“I’ve already told our county councilman, George Cole, that we may file a suit against the County and each of these people individually.”

Having delayed their decision three times, by law, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment will have to vote on the application at its Nov. 20 meeting.