Planners recommend passage of open-space ordinance

After years of pursuing ordinances that would help preserve open space in Sussex County while still allowing developers and property owners to maximize the value of their land, county officials took a big step in that direction on Nov. 13, when the Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend adoption of an open-space ordinance designed to go hand-in-hand with the county’s recently certified update to its comprehensive land-use plan.

“Congratulations, gentlemen. It only took five years to get here,” P&Z Chairman Robert C. Wheatley said after the 5-0 vote recommending the Sussex County Council approve the ordinance – with some changes in certain areas.

Wheatley made particular note of issues raised by Carol Bason of the Center for the Inland Bays in public hearing testimony that evening. He recommended the commissioners even add a few of the items to the draft being forwarded to the county council and then additionally recommend council members review additional correspondence.

“There were some good points made by the public – what the Inland Bays folks offered, some of that we might want to consider specifically,” Wheatley said.

But other commissioners hesitated to make changes to the draft ordinance before it reaches the council, saying that substantive changes might mean rejection at the council level.
“The council has to shape the final draft of it anyway. Anything we put in, they can certainly take out as well,” said Wheatley. “Maybe this is 101, and 202 comes up next,” he added, conceding on the question of making the changes themselves.

Bason’s recommendations included adding to the included definition of open space that “protection of waterways,” or meeting state, federal or local requirements for such, would be an acceptable use for buffers. The CIB also recommended reconsidering some permitted uses in open-space areas, such as swimming pools, related parking areas, and paths.
“Our concern is that 40 percent open space in a cluster subdivision could be totally impervious surface from active recreational use,” she said. “It’s important to limit impervious surface,” she added, recommending the county consider limiting allowable impervious in open space to not exceed 15 percent. She noted that studies generally recommend no more than 5 to 10 percent coverage by impervious surface.

Bason further noted that non-tidal wetlands are not addressed anywhere in the proposed ordinance, where she recommended the county offer incentives for developers to keep such areas as is. She also recommended the county remove central septic fields for entire communities as an acceptable use and reconsider allowing spray irrigation.
“I don’t feel this is an acceptable open-space use,” she said, calling the value of industrial use of spray irrigation questionable.

Also recommended by the CIB was a requirement for applicants to list a percentage of impervious cover within a plat supplied to the county. Bason also asked the commission to consider recommending a requirement that a percentage of total open space be “natural land” with a primary purpose of habitat conservation. Under the proposed ordinance, the entirety of open space in a development could be used for active recreation, she pointed out.

“There’s no requirement for areas to walk; conservation open space or conservation lands; waterway buffers, wildlife corridors,” she emphasized, saying the ordinance should encourage protection of habitat within a development.

“We feel open space is a key area. This is one of most important ordinances to protect the bays and try to improve their quality,” she added, offering to meet with county officials to help them come up with “an appropriate percentage of open space that would meet those needs” and to recommend a percentage of open space set aside for such use, as opposed to active recreation, to which the county could create incentives for developers to create.

“I appreciate the county’s prompt action on the comprehensive plan and these ordinances,” Bason also noted.

Slated specifically for changes before the ordinance heads to the county council was the issue of stormwater management systems, which were inexplicably excluded from open-space calculations for mobile-home parks.

The commissioners also said they would like to see some types of stormwater management systems – specifically “green technologies” – to be included in open-space calculations. The latter restriction was intended to discourage developers from defaulting to the classic open stormwater pond, but there were concerns that the result might actually put a damper on the use of newer technologies.

Roger Gross, a professional engineer who testified Nov.13, said he had been struck by uses not permitted for open space in the ordinance.

“Other counties set dimensional requirements,” he said of such uses, including stormwater systems. “I think a better way to deal with that – especially with state’s new initiative on stormwater management – would be to make them more conducive to open-space types of use, not big ponds. By putting stormwater there, you’re going to steer consultants to where they’re not going to focus on those kinds of systems – especially since they’re being penalized by not being able to use them as open space.”

His suggestion was that the county, instead of a ban, set a dimensional requirement, a percentage of land that has to be uplands or usable open space.

“We hear it at every hearing,” Gross said. “The state’s initiative is moving away from big pond… to more passive methods of stormwater management.”

While Wheatley said he felt the ordinance was designed to encourage developers toward other methods of stormwater management, Gross said he felt it would instead push them toward cluster plans and away from those other technologies.

“It’s a thing that’s worth considering,” said Wheatley. “We are wanting to move away from ponds.”

He thanked the public for their feedback on the ordinance before the 5-0 vote to recommend approval was taken.

Updated signage ordinance gets thumbs-up

Also receiving the planners’ recommendation for passage on Nov. 13 was an updated signage ordinance that collects related ordinances from throughout the county code into one single signage ordinance, adding new definitions for the section of code, including a definition of electronic signage.

The new ordinance would prohibit electronic signage that scrolls or flashes, instead requiring a given display or message to stay in frame for certain period of time. That measure is an eight-count, planners noted – not 8 seconds on a watch but the time for a viewer to count to eight. A default design for such electronic signs would be required, in case they become frozen.

The ordinance would also increase the limitations on signage in the C1 district to 150 square feet total, regardless of the number of signs – a change targeted at reducing the number of variances being requested in the county. The changes would also permit up to 15 percent of a business’ wall area to be used for signage when that wall area is larger than 1,000 square feet.

Fees are also updated in the signage ordinance – about doubled from the existing set of fees, planning officials noted.