County denies massive project

Sussex County Council President Finley Jones pegged it as the biggest project to appear before council since Americana Bayside, back in early 2001. Supporters waited in suspense as the Isaacs Glen project — nearly 1,600 townhouses and assisted living apartments, plus retail and office space, near Milton — came down to Jones for the tiebreaker, at the Sept. 27 council meeting.
And his vote made it 3-2 — motion denied.

To an extent, the project encompassed broader issues of home rule — questions of whether the “State Strategies for Spending and Policy,” or Sussex County’s Comprehensive Plan, ruled local land use. (To make matters more interesting, the county enacted their comprehensive plan in 2002 — the state enacted the new strategies two years later, in 2004.)

The property in question, 827 acres, lies in county agricultural-residential (AR) land. The state overlays that zoning designation on the state strategies maps with an “Investment Level 4” classification.

From the state literature (available on “Although residential development is not desirable in Investment Level 4 areas, it may be inevitable in some instances.” Further, where development takes place, state strategies recommends “conservation design” — keeping projects compatible with the area’s rural character, protecting large portions of existing open space (and farmland) on a site while clustering development, without changing the overall density.

But Isaacs Glen had an overall density of less (albeit barely less) than two units per acre, as permitted by right on AR lands. And was clustered in such a way as to provide more than 50 percent open space.

As Council Member Vance Phillips noted, Isaacs Glen lay outside areas the county had pegged for development in 2002 — but less than a mile outside those development districts. The development districts were intended for higher density residential, Phillips continued — while this was definitely a massive project, the overall density was right for the AR district, P&Z and state comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

“We hear a lot about Livable Delaware (Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s anti-sprawl initiative),” Phillips said. “I’d like to hear a lot about Livable Ellendale. It’s time we start taking care of our own.” Implied, the applicants estimated construction costs for the project at $350 million, and that would likely prove a windfall for local trades and suppliers (and peripherally, restaurants and retail).

Phillips tried to reach compromise regarding concerns over the proposed commercial uses, first by offering a motion to reduce those uses (that motion failed 3-2), and then a motion to stipulate they be removed entirely (other than the assisted living apartments). The second motion passed unanimously.

However, even thus stipulated, Cole said he still concurred with the points Commission Member Benjamin Gordy had listed in P&Z’s recommendation for denial.

The project still didn’t comply with the county’s land use plan, falling as it did in an area more appropriately limited to single-family homes and agricultural uses, Cole reiterated. The land use plan existed specifically to prevent “untimely, scattered, urban, dense” uses — even without the commercial, Isaacs Glen remained just such a use, he suggested.

Cole said the developers had compared the project to Sea Colony, the Peninsula and (Americana) Bayside, “But there’s a big difference,” he proclaimed. “Those were in the development district.” If council members set a precedent with this application, they’d find it very difficult to turn down the next project, Cole said.

Council Member Dale Dukes sided with Phillips. Admittedly, the project wasn’t in a development district, he said — but even so, he felt it complied with the intent behind the county’s comprehensive plan.

Jones and Council Member Lynn Rogers tipped it the other way, though. Rogers insisted he’d be strong for property rights until his last day, but said council hadn’t wandered outside the development districts since he’d been there.

“If we deviate from the Comp Plan, then there was no reason for us to spend more than 100 meetings putting one together,” Rogers concluded. Jones agreed — if the county failed to follow its own guidelines for land use, it could hardly continue to reproach the state for falling behind on infrastructure, he said.

Phillips introduced a motion to expedite the process, if the applicants wished to bring the project back to the P&Z as a clustered subdivision (sans commercial, etc.). That motion passed 3-2, with support from Dukes and Rogers, opposition from Jones and Cole.

In other business, County Administrator Bob Stickels announced the county had a house to give away, and suggested they might partner with Habitat for Humanity to have it moved. The roughly 1,400-square-foot rancher stands in the way of the Sussex County Airport runway extension project.

Stickels also recapped recent county grants to local law enforcement, and noted several new one — $2,000 to Fenwick Island, for laptop computers, and $25,000 to Bethany Beach, for a new cruiser.

Assistant County Engineer Russell Archut delineated an escrow agreement with developers, for central sewer infrastructure upgrades. Bay Forest LLC, building at the corner of White’s Neck and Old Mill roads (north of Millville), are bearing the load at present, and they’d paid for one new pump station already, behind Food Lion.

Archut said the Bay Forest project would build out to 800 homes, but the developers were building in extra sewer capacity, with mains more than twice as large as their subdivision would require. As Stickels noted, the county was requesting capacity to meet projections to 2025.