County begins discussion of historic preservation

Sussex County officials included in the county’s most recent comprehensive land-use plan a recommendation to consider ordinances related to historic preservation, and they got started on fulfilling that promise this week, with discussion of a loose outline developed under the leadership of Dan Parsons, head of the county’s Historic Preservation Office.

Parsons, along with County Administrator David Baker, Planning Director Lawrence Lank and County Attorney Everett Moore, met recently to review the outline put together by planning consultant Paul Driscoll during land-use plan discussions, made some changes of their own, and brought the results to county council members at their July 28 meeting. The council members will offer their own input before a draft ordinance moves forward to possible introduction.

Parsons noted on Tuesday that the idea of the ordinance, as proposed, is to “give a cooling-off period to find other alternatives for structures eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” rather than simply tearing them down. He pointed out that a state list of such places includes some 12,000 archeological and historical sites and structures in Sussex County alone.

“This will help protect historical properties,” said Parsons. “And it at least will allow us to document the structure before it’s destroyed.”

Parsons said the evaluation of a structure for whether it would fall under the terms of the proposed ordinance would be by National Register of Historic Places criteria. The proposed ordinance would institute a 60-day waiting period in which Parsons would have time to evaluate the structure for its significance, using photos as initial evidence of possible age and historic value, and to document any structure deemed to be significant.

When owners of properties possibly falling under the ordinance would apply to the county for a permit to alter the structure, Parsons would review a photo and possibly go out to the site if there’s any question about its value. If he finds it to be of value, he could then document the structure and contact the owners, and preservationists, to see if they would like to arrange to preserve it or move it, instead of just demolishing it.

But, Parsons emphasized, the delay would not be used to “to impede on people’s rights to do what they wish with their property.” They could still choose to tear down the structure, with the only legacy then left being Parsons’ efforts to document what had once been on the site.

Councilman Michael Vincent (R-1st) asked Parsons about the 60-day delay period, which incorporates the existing 14-day waiting period for a permit from the county and adds 46 additional days for that “cooling-off period” for owners of historic structures.

“Is 60 days enough? Is it too much?” he asked.

Parsons noted that the original outline had called for a 90-day delay, which he said he had thought was too much. The 60-day period, he said, would allow for him being on vacation and other possible delays.

“We will have to develop a program to adequately document the structures,” he noted, which would likely mean Parsons enlisting interns from the University of Delaware to help him document the structures.

Deaver finds teeth lacking in proposal

A major element of the ordinance, as initially proposed – more of a missing element – is that the program offers no enforcement power for the 60-day delay period. There is, Parsons said, no penalty if property owners affected by the ordinance don’t come in for the required review.

Parsons said the only penalty the group had discussed was a possible $200 fine, saying that if the fee for a permit is $100, maybe the penalty for violating the ordinance should be $200. He said his office would discover that a structure had been improperly razed if someone came in to change their assessment to account for a lack of a former structure or the construction of a new one in its place.

“So, there’s no enforcement?” asked a skeptical Councilwoman Joan Deaver (D-3rd).

“Not as this is written,” replied Parsons.

Baker said the group had tried to come up with a figure it would cost the county to have Parsons evaluate a property when someone comes in to fill out a permit, to post it and advertise the review to the public. That cost came in about $100 – roughly the fee that New Castle and Kent counties charge for their own preservation programs.

“What happens if I have an historic structure, and I’m aware of the county permit requirement, and I just ignore it?” Baker said they had asked themselves, “and we thought about doubling that fee.”

“Well, that’s really going to stop it,” Deaver replied sarcastically. “Inadequate,” she declared.

Parsons noted that the ordinance, as proposed, would limit the requirement for the county preservation review to structures that are at least 80 years old – “of very historical value” – and of more than 800 square feet in size. A home that is 50 years old, a 40-year-old barn or a 30-year-old cottage would all be excluded from review. The property owner of such structures could proceed with demolition under normal county requirements.

Parsons said the way he would roughly judge the age of a structure during his review would be to look at assessment records. “There’s no way to discern accurately the age by looking at it,” he said.

“But this wouldn’t stop it,” said Deaver.

“This gives us time to document the structure,” Parsons reiterated.

Council President Vance Phillips (R-5th) emphasized on Tuesday that the discussions of the proposed ordinance this week were a far cry from adopting the program as proposed or, indeed, any ordinance at all.

“We’ll have more discussion in the future,” he said, noting the ordinance’s introduction is only “possible.” “It was required to be considered, and not necessarily adopted, based on our land-use plan,” he reiterated.

While Deaver had expressed concern over the lack of teeth in the ordinance, other council members were concerned the ordinance might go too far in the other direction.

“I don’t think we should ever pass the law that says they have to preserve it,” said Councilman Sam Wilson (R-2nd). “We want to encourage them without passing laws and making rules.”

“At end of 60 days, if that doesn’t surface, they can do what they please,” said Vincent.

County records going digital, getting organized

Also on July 28, Parsons provided an update to the council on his recent efforts to improve the county’s records management.

Baker noted that Parsons and Debbie Brittingham had been working on establishing a documents management center at the county’s former Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

“For first time ever, we now have a facility to store, maintain and catalog county records,” said Baker. “That’s primarily been the responsibility of individual departments in past,” he noted, with storage being done at a variety of locations, including a courthouse crawlspace and in Quonset huts and a hangar at the airport. He praised Parsons’ and Brittinghams’ work on the project.

For his part, Parsons thanked county staff for their help “with this monumental, enormous job.” He said the work on the project was continuing, with the digitization of records in a format that will go into storage with permanent records.

With the new system, county departments will maintain three years of their own records. Parsons and his staff will take the rest of their records and supply them back to the departments upon request. The digital system, he said, will allow all department heads to have access to their records digitally.

“That should increase the efficiency of all the departments,” Parsons said.