Changes to ordinances target backlog

Sussex County could give developers more time to get substantially under way with their projects, if the county council adopts two proposed ordinances that were formally introduced at the March 31 council meeting.

Both ordinances would change the existing one-year time limit to get from preliminary approval by the county to substantial completion of a project to three years, eliminating in the process the availability of two one-year time extensions, which have become routine as state officials and agencies try to keep up with demand for their approval and as developers delay work for financial or other reasons.

The two ordinances would impact preliminary subdivision plat approvals and conditional use approvals. Again, there would be no extensions available for either kind of approval if these two ordinances were adopted. Developers would have three years to make substantial progress and no longer.

The move is expected to help lighten the load on an already overburdened Planning & Zoning Commission, which currently has a 16- to 20-month wait for applications to get from the initial application to being heard before the commission. The elimination of the one-year time extensions would simply take those requests off the commission’s agenda.

Any project on which the three-year approval period expired would have to start the whole approval process over again.

A third proposed ordinance would alter the existing procedure for approval of some simple subdivision applications, to keep them off the commission’s agendas as much as possible and allow county staff to handle them instead.

The affected subdivisions would be major subdivisions containing three or fewer lots that are located along a new street, new 50-foot easement or an extension of an existing 50-foot easement, as well as similar minor subdivisions of agricultural lands.

These subdivisions are frequently used to create separate lots for residential use by members of a family or extended family, particularly when on or adjacent to farmland owned by the family. They appear frequently on P&Z agendas at present.

County Planning Director Lawrence Lank noted on Tuesday that the new process would not apply to any cluster developments, and that subdivisions with more than three lots can’t utilize easements in lieu of streets.

Easements are typically used instead of streets so that the access area isn’t taken out of the total amount of acreage of the larger parcel when calculating lot size and density, he said. Lank noted that it’s typical to use an easement, rather than a street, to get access to a lot at the rear of a larger parcel.

Lank said the application method for the staff-approved subdivisions would include the sending of notices to owners of adjacent property owners. If any of those adjacent property owners requested a public hearing on the subdivision, the county would hold one.

Lank noted that the process is similar to that already in use by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) for applications under its wetlands and subaqueous land section. If no objections or requests for hearings are received, no public hearing is held and the application is handled by staff.

The change to allow staff-approved subdivisions in some cases did raise some concerns for council members on Tuesday.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver particularly noted concerns about whether posted signage about the application would be large enough to provide notice. “If they don’t see the sign or if they live outside area it’s being made to, the subdivision could be approved without a public hearing,” she said.

But Councilman George Cole pointed out, “What they are approving is a permitted use in that zone.” He noted that in the county’s AR (agricultural-residential) zone, that would mean a minimum lot size of three-quarters of an acre.

Lank, though, said the process would be far from an automatic approval. “If no one objected, the director still has the right to refer it to Planning & Zoning, or to ask for a hearing,” he said.

“So they couldn’t just bring it in to the counter and get it done in one day?” Cole inquired.

“No,” Lank replied, adding that a certain time period would be set by the ordinance that would be a minimum time for response to the application, thus allowing some time to pass between an application and its approval.

The council will consider the ordinances at a future meeting and a public hearing on their adoption will be held prior to a council vote. All three ordinances came at the recommendation of the P&Z.

Council considers

expansion of S.B.

sewer district

Council members on March 31 also held a public hearing on the proposed Double Bridges expansion of the South Bethany sewer district, which would serve seven additional single-family homes off Double Bridges Road, through connection to an existing manhole on Neptune Drive in the Ocean Farms community.

The 46.8-acre parcel has been planned for development of just seven single-family homes along the front of the parcel, with 35.2 acres of wetlands toward the back to be kept as open space. The concept for the sewer service was approved in 2007, with a maximum of about 100 equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) available for the parcel, but developers now say they only wish to put the seven homes on the property and get county sewer service for them.

Andrew Hayes, representing the developers, noted that they had met with members of the Ocean Farms homeowners association to address their concerns and emphasize that the development would only include seven lots, despite the parcel’s size. The developers would pay $4,000 per EDU for the connection costs.

“We’re looking for a mechanism to preserver the back of the site and not develop it at all,” said Hayes. “We’re in discussion with the county now to get county ownership of the land,” he added, noting that it is adjacent to the county’s sewer plant. “We want to take it out of crop rotation and preserve it now.”

Hayes said they plan to limit disturbance of the roads and other areas of Ocean Farms during construction of the sewer expansion to just 30 days, maximum. He said they were also looking at shared driveways to reduce disturbance to the land, to address stormwater runoff concerns.

“The development of the back of the property would require ditching the wetlands,” he noted. “Preserving them is the best remedy for stormwater issues on the back of the site.”

County staff noted on Tuesday that the question had previously been raised as to whether the council could limit approval of the sewer system expansion to only include the seven proposed lots, versus the entire parcel, and said their research indicated that was a valid option.

It was an option supported by some homeowners in Ocean Farms, who turned out to reiterate some of their concerns about the project and make sure they were on the record in case the project slipped by them when coming back to the county for subdivision and other approvals.

“We have a water problem now. We can handle it, but I’m afraid development of the seven lots will cause more water runoff,” said Ocean Farms HOA President Jim Harding, who said the HOA would prefer the county only approve sewer service to the proposed seven parcels.

“Any stormwater from that site has to be kept on that site,” offered Lank in clarification. “They can’t increase what’s coming off the site.”

Cole said he was concerned about the potential to develop more than 80 multi-family units on the front portion of the parcel, due to the large size of the parcel with wetlands included. “Seven lots sounds non-threatening, but they could come back to us with something altogether different,” he said.

County staff noted there was still room for rejection of the project as a concept plan or a subdivision, and said that while county sewer structure in the area could handle sewer for 80 or more multi-family units at the site, the Ocean Farms sewer system it is currently planned to be fed through wouldn’t be able to handle that volume, forcing the sewer service to go elsewhere for a hook-up if that many units were developed there.

With support on the council for limiting the approval to just the seven proposed lots, County Solicitor David Griffin recommended the council defer a decision until a future council meeting – likely their April 7 meeting – so that staff could properly draft a change of the legal description to match only the seven lots and not the entire parcel.

Council voted unanimously to defer for that reason.