County council plans Jan. 19 workshop on land use

The Sussex County Council will hold a workshop on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 19, to discuss zoning ordinances in the context of the county’s most recent update to the comprehensive land-use plan.

County Administrator David Baker said County Planning Director Lawrence Lank and consultants Urban Research will make a presentation to the council at the workshop about some ideas they have about the ordinances that would support the 2009 update to the land-use plan.

Ordinances that would help enforce the ideals depicted in the land-use plan have been a regular touchpoint for County Councilman George Cole and Councilwoman Joan Deaver, who have both advocated having more “teeth” behind some of the principles espoused in the plan. But council members have differed over whether the adoption of the plan – which has force of law – mandates that the council adopt ordinances to enforce all its tenets.

“These items are to be considered under the land-use plan?” inquired Deaver at the council’s Jan. 12 meeting, “It’s not required?”

“That depends on your interpretation,” Cole replied pointedly.

“You’re required to consider those items,” County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. emphasized.

“The land-use plan has the force of law,” Cole added. “Once they’re in the plan, we can’t just arbitrarily discard them.”

“These items need to be addressed, and obviously you should have reasons,” Moore replied.

Council President Vance Phillips said he felt it was an opportune time for the council to address the issue of the ordinances.

“We spent most of 2009 addressing the county’s financial crisis, and we’ve adopted quite a few of the ordinances in the land-use plan, but obviously we have more to consider,” he said, noting that the county would begin to address its 2011 budget in March and April. “We have a window here.”

The public is invited to observe the workshop but cannot participate. Cole said he felt there might not be enough room for the public at the planned venue at the county’s West Office Complex, due to the likely interest in the topic, and suggested staff be prepared to move the event to council chambers should interest indicate that more room would be needed.

Cole on Tuesday also noted that he would like the council, while it is discussing land-use ordinances, to discuss the possible creation of “subcategories” for the existing zoning districts, such as a B-1-restaurant and B-1-professional offices designation, to differentiate between the impacts of such uses within the B-1 business zones.

Cole said convenience stores, for example, generate “unbelievable” traffic when compared to a doctor’s office.

Stormwater management requested topic for agenda

Referencing a letter the council had received and read into the record earlier in the Jan. 12 meeting, Deaver said on Jan. 12 that she would also like the council to use a portion of next week’s workshop to look at creating a stormwater-management ordinance.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs-King (R-37th), who is also president of the Sussex County Association of Realtors, had written a letter to the council expressing her concerns about the county’s drainage problems, after numerous problems with flooding occurred during recent storms.

King said she would like a comprehensive drainage code to be enacted to address the county’s “unique drainage problems.” In her letter, she notes that the area’s mean elevation is the lowest in the nation, with only two of its rivers draining westward and the rest across to the coast.

Historically, King wrote, tax ditches were used to prevent flooding from impacting farming, but, she said officials had “failed to see that upkeep and planning are necessary.”

“Land use is traditionally a responsibility of the local government entity,” King wrote. “It’s time to address this issue, which is so blatantly before us, because it will not go away without change.”

King added that she believes the state’s conservation districts are not sufficiently funded for them to move ahead with the “20th Century Projects” that would have provided improved drainage across the area.

Additionally, she said the 20th Century Projects were designed to provide assistance for individual property owners and were not set up to take away the responsibility for stormwater management from the county.

Deaver pointed to the heavy rainfall of the second half of 2009, with 14 inches in July, and 30 inches in November and 64 inches in December.

Also among the requested items for the council to address at the workshop is a procedural issue from recent council meetings: the tabling of a land-use application by a council member.

Councilman Michael Vincent had recently requested the tabling of consideration of a project in which the allocation of sewer capacity was a prominent topic, and Deaver on Jan. 12 had requested the tabling for 45 days of consideration of a project in her district, to allow her to further study the project and speak with its developers, she said.

Phillips and Councilman Sam Wilson voted against tabling the application, making for a narrow 3-2 approval to do so on the heels of Deaver not getting a second to defer on the application.

Deaver said she interpreted council procedural rules to permit the councilperson from the district in which a project is located to be able to unilaterally decide to table the application, but Phillips said he believed it took a majority vote of the council to approve tabling.

Cole argued that, regardless of the interpretation of the rule, the council had permitted Vincent to request a tabling in the other case and should also do so for Deaver. The interpretation of that policy would be up for clarification at the workshop.

Also on Jan. 12:

• The council voted to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) for uses for three vacant homes owned by the county on property purchased for future airport runway expansion. The proposals from nonprofit organizations would be for use of the homes on a short-term basis, until they need to be moved or destroyed by the county.

Proposals should include benefits to the community from the proposed use, how the use will conform to current zoning, a history of any other homes managed by the group, proof it is financially capable of taking on the responsibility, expectations for use, background on the organization, plans for receiving funding, verification of its tax status as a non-profit and statements that it is willing to undertake all maintenance, utility bills and repairs.

Phillips thanked county staff members Gina Jennings and Brandy Bennett for germinating the idea and moving it forward.

Bennett noted that she had received 15 calls about the idea since it was first made public – all positive. Some, she said, were just families looking for an affordable place to rent, while most were from small organizations looking to use the homes for uses the county would like them be used for, to benefit the community.

• Baker reported on progress in the county’s “clean-hands collections” project, with more than $767,000 in taxes and sewer and water bills collected as a result of the ordinance as approved in October 2007, he said. The ordinance requires payment of outstanding monies due to the county before county services, such as building permits, can be provided.

Baker also reported that the county’s sewer and water bill amnesty program had resulted in $47,000 being collected from the West Rehoboth, Long Neck and Oak Orchard districts, from 291 delinquent accounts. He said the program will be offered in other districts later this month.

Finally, Baker introduced Katrina Mears, the county’s new collections manager.

• The council approved the reassignment of the county’s $27 million private activity volume capital to the State of Delaware. The funding had not been used by the county in aiding private companies needing support for their funding.

In one of the largest approvals for such funding, Blue Hen Organics was allocated $4.5 million in capital from the county fund, but county staff said the company was not hopeful about getting a needed letter of credit and had instead gone ahead with its work on its Frankford-area facility in small phases. If the company was to come back to the county for funding, the county could pull it from its current-year allocation.

• The county’s Recorder of Deeds reported an increase in document filings in 2008, up 858 over 2008. With a new online document system available for three months now, he said 31,000 pages had been viewed by 561 individual users, with $5,200 in unbudgeted revenue coming into the county from the new service.

County staff has been continuing to scan existing documents into the system as time is available, at no additional cost. The department has spent just 43 percent of its budgeted expenses for the current fiscal year, with hopes that it could come in at less than 90 percent of its budgeted revenue for the year.

• Public input to the council expressed concerns about transparency of its operation, focusing on disappointment over the return to 10 a.m. meetings and daytime hearings. Frustration was also expressed over the reliance on paper documents in the county’s Planning and Zoning Department, which was said to make it difficult to obtain information versus the ease of digital documents.