County monitoring bills in state legislature

With legislators back in session in Dover, Sussex County Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin has been busy tracking legislation and reporting back to the Sussex County Council in recent weeks. Along with a proposed bill that would govern how possible casino locations would be decided, Godwin reported this week on legislation impacting religious meetings, legal recourses over sewer connections and several other issues of interest to the county.

Godwin on April 20 particularly noted House Bill 352, which would delete state code requiring a permit from a commission composed of the county sheriff, county council president and clerk of the peace for camp meetings and other religious meetings.

Rather than transferring that authority to another entity, Godwin said the bill was deregulatory, eliminating the requirement for the permit altogether.

While Council President Vance Phillips said he thought the permit process might be a free-speech issue, Councilman George Cole said he was concerned the lack of a permitting requirement could become a problem if meetings went on for three or four months.

With no permit required and a property not having to be rezoned for the open-air and tent meetings, as might be required to build a church, Cole said he saw “a potential loophole for a permanent church under a tent in a field.”

County Attorney Everett Moore said he believed the existing county zoning ordinances that are in place to deal with such issues would suffice in dealing with that kind of potential problem. Neither the sheriff nor clerk of peace have zoning authority, he pointed out.

“Are we permitted under our zoning code to send out inspectors and say, “Cease and desist, because it’s not allowed under our code”? Cole inquired.

Moore replied that a church is a permitted use in some areas and that any disputes would go back to the county zoning code.

On the subject of House Bill 333, which was due to be discussed on the legislature’s April 20 agenda, Godwin noted that the bill was legislation that the Sussex County Council itself had initiated, to allow it the use of the Justice of the Peace Court to enforce requirements for sewer connections.

He emphasized that the county can still use the Court of Chancery for legal recourse in such cases but said he would be faster and less expensive, and wouldn’t bottle up the Court of Chancery with such cases, if the county had the option of going to the JP Court instead.

The council voted unanimously to support the bill.

Godwin said he was also monitoring about 10 other bills, including HB 206 and SB 160 – housekeeping bills regarding the state building code, as well as a requirement that the plumbing code to be updated (though Sussex County doesn’t inspect plumbing) and energy issues, which the county is already in the process of working on.

Also on April 20:

• Godwin received unanimous approval to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) for a consultant to develop an updated emergency response plan for the county, with the current one having been in place for six years.

He emphasized that the updated plan is needed if the county wants to be eligible for federal funding in an emergency, such as it was from the February blizzards. The estimated cost for the consulting work is about $50,000, with grant funding available for some of that expense.

Godwin said a main task of the updated plan would be to offer better access to towns into the county system – faster, more efficiently. He noted that the coastal towns, in particular, are very vital to have connected during a storm. “We need to be able to offer a quick connection to Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island,” he said. “We need to facilitate that better than it is now.”

• The council set a tentative date of June 8 for a public hearing regarding a proposed expansion of the Millville sewer district, for H&D Townhouses, located on Beaver Dam Road on 3.2 acres previously rezoned from AR-1 to Residential, with a conditional approval for a residential planned community (RPC). The property, now annexed into Millville, is contiguous to the existing sewer district.

• The council asked county staff to organize a workshop for them on the topic of commercial zoning districts, following up on a prior request by Cole and Councilman Michael Vincent to look into the possibilities of more restrictive districts that would specify types of commercial entities that could operate there.

Planning Director Lawrence Lank noted that the county has received “a mess of commercial applications for B-1, C-1, and CR-1” zoning. He said, “It appears to be time now to give consideration to amending those commercial districts and more restrictive commercial districts that people can apply for.”

Cole and Vincent both cited the potential for existing rezoning cases to change the types of businesses proposed between approval and construction. Vincent said he might be interested in having zones in which changes from the proposed use to another one would result in the rezoning approval being rescinded, describing it as a kind of “conditional use on steroids.”

While Lank said the existing conditional-use process was one in which things already worked that way, he agreed that the county had had problems where conditional-use applications specified a use of “orthopedic surgeon’s office” and the applicant couldn’t later change that to a chiropractor’s office, at least without seeking an additional conditional-use approval.

Cole said he’d seen conditional uses get bogged down in specifying the number of employees allowed, for example – something he said had led the county to being criticized by the courts for “abusing” the conditional-use process by having too many conditions.

Instead, Cole said he’d like sub-categories for commercial zones, such as commercial/hotel and commercial/restaurant.

“That way it can change hands and will always be commercial, but it would have to be a restaurant,” he explained. “If they wanted a Home Depot there, they would have to come back.”

Cole said he also found fault with the specifics of plans provided in some cases, in which drawings might be provided, for instance, and something looking completely different was built. “It’s a blend of conditional use and change of zone,” he added of his suggestion. “Can we do that?” he asked Moore.

“I’m not sure we can do that,” Moore replied, saying he would need to research the issue. He noted that many small towns already have such sub-categories in their zoning ordinances, permitting similar uses under one umbrella, such as professional offices.

“This has been a long time coming,” Cole said, with a workshop now planned on the issue. “It would relieve a lot of conditional-use requests and would also relieve a lot of the angst when we change a zone.”

• The council awarded a $500 grant to the Beach and Bay Cottage Tour, to benefit the South Coastal Library, and $2,000 in grants to the Delaware Burn Camp for a children’s camp session.