County rejects controversial commercial project

Years of work designed to bring a 360,000-square-foot commercial center to King’s Highway near Lewes this week came to an abrupt halt as Sussex County Council members voted 3-2 not to approve change of zoning needed for the project to move forward as planned.

The Lingo-Townsend project had been the subject of strong and vocal opposition from Lewes-area residents and officials as the project went through the county’s planning process, garnering a recent 3-2 vote from the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission recommending against the approval of the requested change of zoning on the 45-acre parcel near Cape Henlopen High School from AR-1 agricultural-residential to CR-1 commercial-residential.

The Sussex County Council had previously tabled consideration of the zoning application at the request of Councilman Michael Vincent, who said that he wanted more time to research the project and its impacts before casting a vote.

Vincent turned out to be the swing vote on the council on Tuesday, Jan. 19, as the council brought the application back to the table for a decision.

“This was my first experience of public hearings where both sides had attorneys and expert witnesses,” Vincent noted before casting his vote on Tuesday against the rezoning. “When I left at 1 a.m., after a six-hour hearing,” he said of the September hearings on the project, “my thought was that these people were talking about two different projects.”

Noting that he appreciated those people who had taken the time to call him, send postcards and otherwise contact him on the issue, Vincent cautioned the public that, while he personally has a thick skin, some of the comments that had been made to him “were not the nicest things that could be said.”

Vincent emphasized on Tuesday that the county’s planning process means, “The only thing, by law, that we are allowed to look at is the public record. In most things, public opinion is a great thing, but we’re only allowed to consider what’s in the official record,” he reiterated before thanking his fellow council members for allowing him to table the application for more research.

What the vote came down to for him, Vincent said, were concerns about the physical footprint and size of the proposed buildings in the Lingo-Townsend project, plus its impacts on the surrounding environment.

“I’m very concerned about the effect on surface-water recharge areas,” he noted, pointing out that the county allows 60 percent lot coverage, but the recommendation from the State of Delaware’s Preliminary Land-Use Service (PLUS) calls for just 50 percent lot coverage – less than planned for the Lingo-Townsend project by the time parking areas and other infrastructure is included.

Citing also his faith in the decision-making abilities of the county P&Z, which had recommended against the approval on a similar 3-2 vote, Vincent said he voted to deny the rezoning, making for a clear victory for opponents of the project on the heels of negative votes from Council Members Joan Deaver and George Cole.

Thunderous applause erupted from a large crowd of opponents in attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting. Vincent quickly chastised them for the outburst.

In casting their votes against approving the rezoning for the project, Cole and Deaver had both cited a laundry list of concerns that reflected the same reasoning the P&Z majority had cited in recommending against the rezoning:

• That it was not consistent with the character of the surrounding property, where there are only limited commercial uses and those are small compared to the proposed project.

• That the county’s comprehensive land-use plan states AR-1 zoning is just as appropriate for that area as C-1 zoning, and that a change of zone is not by right and that the comp plan does not mandate the change, even if it might be seen to permit it.

• That the proposed project is even larger than existing commercial projects along Route 1 that are already zoned commercial.

• That the Lewes City Council and Board of Public Works had voiced concerns and objections over the proposed project and requested the rezoning be denied.

• The strong public opposition, especially over additional traffic the project might draw, and noting its proximity to Cape Henlopen High School, which lies just across the street and posed safety concerns with the traffic being so near the busy school.

• That, contrary to the required reasons to approve the rezoning, it would not promote the orderly growth of the county.

In contrast, Council Member Sam Wilson said he stood behind the reasons given by the applicants for approving the rezoning:

• That it is on a major arterial thoroughfare (Kings Highway).

• That it is consistent with the comp plan, existing in the state-designated Level 2 infrastructure area – suburban or rapidly growing, and Level 3 area – intermingled with rapidly growing areas.

• That the State voiced no objection to development of the property.

• That the applicants had reduced the size of the project and agreed to contribute to roadway improvements.

• That it would help preserve the City of Lewes by reducing growth and traffic in downtown areas, with a shuttle service from downtown to the project planned.

Deaver voiced objections to having the applicants’ reasons for approval read into the record on Tuesday, asking about the legal ramifications of refreshing that portion of the evidence presented during the hearings on the application, which the county’s attorneys said was permitted and which Council President Vance Phillips defended as the right of Wilson to request as a council member.

“I guess we should look back at the opposition in the record and read that back, too,” Deaver commented, to applause from opponents.

Wilson then made the required affirmative motion to approve the rezoning, further stating, “They haven’t proven yet that traffic is going to increase,” to vocal objections from the audience. “Most of the traffic is going to be coming from the [Cape May-Lewes Ferry,” Wilson continued through the interruption.

“That’s the courteousness of this bunch,” he then shot at them. “Mob rule. But what should you expect?”

“I did my study and I don’t believe it will be worse,” he said, adding that traffic could be, “at most, 1 percent worse, because it will be going both ways.”

Wilson also cited concerns about the property rights of the parcel’s owners.

“The man owns it,” he said. “He’s met all the zoning requirements.”

“Joan, for you being as fair a person as I know you are, I know you’d want to hear both sides,” he quipped at Deaver, in response to her objections to re-reading the applicants’ reasons for approval.

For her part, Deaver cited the P&Z findings in support of denial. “It should be along major thoroughfares,” she said, noting that the project was even larger than existing commercial projects, which she said were “in a much more appropriate location, on property already zoned for commercial use.”

Deaver also cited the county’s memorandum of understanding with municipalities including Lewes, which is designed to coordinate between them on potential development. Lewes, she noted, had requested the county deny the rezoning.

Cole, too, said he found the rezoning was not appropriate.

“We have a commercial corridor established on Route 1, but we still have a multitude of infrastructure problems there,” he noted. “I’ve seen a lot of growth over the years, and that area has primarily residential subdivisions and small businesses.” Cole also pointed to Cape as the largest high school in the county, as well as to traffic generated by the ferry, hospital, parks and downtown Lewes.

“This falls under the category of excessive development,” Cole said. “The P&Z says it does not meet our land-use goals,” he added, voicing support the P&Z’s reasons for denial.

“We owe it to the residents of Sussex County to show that this council is going to act responsibly and not support just conceptual plans of commercial large-scale development where it’s not needed and is not even supported by most of the large-scale commercial entities along this corridor,” he concluded, stating also his concern that the project would end up as a “big-box” store, putting local business in a position where it would be difficult to compete.

With the vote standing at 3-1 against rezoning and the failure of the application clear, Phillips said he still agreed with Wilson, casting a vote in favor of the request.

“The comprehensive plan encourages this type of development,” he said, going on to point at former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s Livable Delaware program – upon which provisions of the comprehensive plan are based – as having been contrary to what the public wants.

“The public reaction reflects the frivolity of master plans, comprehensive land-use plans and the underlying foundation of the document called Livable Delaware that’s been pushed on us from the state,” Phillips said, pointing out that Livable Delaware says development should occur around the towns.

“As I predicted 10 years ago, the towns don’t necessarily want growth and development piled on top of them,” he concluded, saying that the project had taken Livable Delaware to heart, “and it does conform to those documents.”