County aims for ‘clean hands’ and clean lots

The Sussex County Council discussed two proposed ordinances at their Sept. 18 meeting, dealing with the maintenance of lots by property owners and with the county’s ability to refuse to issue building permits until applicants have paid up on monies due to the county.

The proposed “clean hands” policy would require applicants for permits to be current in any payments due to Sussex County, including taxes and fees for services such as sewer, before county officials would be allowed to issue a building permit.

That information is now available at the county permit office, thanks to a software upgrade to county information systems that will tell those processing permit applications when the applicant is delinquent in paying the county. Applicants denied permits because of delinquencies would be able to appeal their cases to the county administrator, for a variety of grounds, including by proving that they did not owe the cited amount.

Councilman George Cole (R-4th) on Tuesday supported the policy being expanded beyond such issues as tax debts and overdue service fees, to include violations of the county’s zoning ordinances.

“We have a lot of people flout our zoning ordinances because they know there is no enforcement,” he said. “This would be a way to bring them into the system.”

Council President Dale Dukes (D-1st) disagreed strongly on including zoning violations, saying, “It should not be. There is not a fine or fee being assessed. That’s not something to hold up a building permit for.”

“That would take enforcing it too far,” Dukes added.

Indeed, the county only puts fines against property owners for zoning violations on its books when a case is filed in the state’s Justice of the Peace (JP) Court and a judge issues a finding in the county’s favor, with fines or damages assessed to the property owner by the court. In such cases, any amount not paid could only then be considered a delinquent payment to the county.

County Solicitor James D. Griffin emphasized that the computer systems currently updated to include other monies owed to the county would not show something like a setback violation, though it would be possible to add such information with some programming work, if it was needed.

Councilman Vance Phillips also argued against including zoning violations in the “clean hands” policy, citing the existing backlog of zoning applications and a Board of Adjustments process that could add a tremendous delay to getting a building permit if property owners found they needed to get a violation rectified or to obtain a special exception to permit it to lawfully exist.

“It could take 18 months for them to hear a zoning case to get it corrected,” Phillips said. “That could really hold up the process.”

Consensus on the council Tuesday was to leave the draft ordinance as it stands, with plans to formally introduce it at the council’s Sept. 25 meeting.

Lot maintenance ordinance ready for introduction

A second proposed ordinance, intended to help ensure that properties within the county are kept in a neat and orderly condition, also moved forward to the introduction phase after discussion at the Sept. 18 council meeting.

The lot maintenance ordinance deals with limitations on the accumulation of non-working vehicles and watercraft, refuse, tall grass and weeds, and waste on commercial properties. It eliminates reference to transfer station enforcement, which has itself been eliminated, and updates restrictions on what can be accumulated and related fines.

The ordinance, as presented Tuesday, allowed for no more than two non-working or non-licensed vehicles and/or two watercraft to be stored on a given residential parcel, as is currently permitted. With advice from the county’s enforcement department and vehement support on stricter limits from Cole, the ordinance was to be revised to allow a maximum of two such vehicles or watercraft.

Cole argued that the number should, in fact, be zero.

“Some of these never leave,” he said. “We’re being generous in allowing them just to exist. I’d like to ban them. There’s no reason why they should be on anybody’s residential lot.”

Dukes countered that someone could need to store a non-working vehicle on their property if they were in the process of restoring an antique vehicle, for example. But Cole pointed out that the county already has an exception for such work. Also excepted is the storage of an antique vehicle inside of a building, as well as for unlicensed vehicles used and stored on agricultural land.

Though he would rather the ordinance allowed no such vehicle storage, Cole agreed to move it forward to introduction with the cap of two vehicles or watercraft, with the assurance from Griffin that the exact number in the limitation could be changed through the process of public hearings and possible adoption.

County officials also clarified that those owning vacant property adjacent to their residential lot, paying taxes on a single combined parcel, would also be allowed just two such vehicles stored on the combined area, and not two per lot.

Those found in violation would have 30 days from notification by the county to correct the violation. If not corrected, the owner would be subject to fines ranging from $250 to $500 for a first offense, $500 to $700 for a second offense, $700 to $1,000 for a third offense and $2,500 for a fourth offense, with the case being sent to the JP Court after repeated violations.

The ordinance also sets a maximum height for non-agricultural “growths” — namely grass and weeds — on properties at 12 inches and prohibits the accumulation of other materials, not including the “orderly accumulation” of such things as firewood or building materials. Violators of this portion of the ordinance would have 10 days from notification by the county to correct the problem. If not corrected in that time, the county could have the materials removed by a third party, at the property owner’s expense.

Finally, the ordinance also requires commercial property owners to ensure that waste materials are contained in a heavy-duty container, with the same schedule of compliance and fees as for the vehicle storage violations.

The ordinance is set to be introduced Sept. 25.

Piney Neck sewer at risk

Council members on Sept. 17 agreed to defer a decision on creating the Piney Neck Sewer District, with one neighbor asking for clarification of whether his property could be included in the district and unsure of whether he wanted to be included, as well as pleas from developers of two of the subdivisions to be included in the district for additional time to examine related financial issues.

Mark Chura of HKS LLC, which owns the proposed The Moorings and Marina at Peppers Creek developments, asked for at least a week to determine if his company wanted to move forward with creating the district, citing the change in the area’s real estate market as having a financial impact on their decision.

“We want to make sure this is financially feasible,” Chura said, suggesting that conclusion might take more than a week. That time period is key because the council must approve the creation of the district no later than Sept. 25, or it would be forced to repeat a process of notification, meetings and public hearings in order to create the district.

Likewise, developers of the Peppers Creek community said they needed “a little more time” to take a look at the costs involved for them in creating the sewer district and to consider whether less costly alternatives could be used.

In response, Cole said he was concerned about the “hit-or-miss” nature of the plans for the district, saying there was no timetable for its construction and that he felt the county was at the mercy of developers on when construction would begin.

He particularly challenged the developers on their apparent concern over finances when connecting communities to central sewer has been an environmental priority for the county, having been deemed to be superior to individual community septic systems.

“This is unbelievable,” Cole said. “You pushed us to get this for you and now, because of the market’s changed, you want to go back.”

“There was no need for sewer off Piney Neck until you came to us and asked for it,” Cole emphasized.

Opinions on the possible impact of a delay for the sewer district’s implementation were varied. But Sussex County Engineer Mike Izzo said the result would be a “no harm, no foul” situation, with costs of construction being delayed just as the related revenue would be.

Izzo said he had been working with the developers and other area residents to come up with a plan that would satisfy everyone involved. Some kind of “trunk line” with a possible future connections extended to the new developments had been discussed, he said, but would require the county to front the costs of the infrastructure.

While Peppers Creek representatives implied that developing the community might be delayed, Chura declared, “It’s our intent to move forward.” He cited agreements with other utilities for service to the area and a delay in site work made by the company in order to work with the county on an agreeable solution.

“The challenge for us is paying these infrastructure costs up front, as the first ones in,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cole encouraged one neighboring property owner to consider asking for his property to be included in the district, citing the lower cost of impact fees and lower billing rates for connecting to the sewer now instead of in a future expansion.

Craig Phillips said he had been told by one of the neighboring developers that his connection to the system would be free, but county officials said they couldn’t arrange to waive fees. Phillips and his neighboring parcel owners have been left out of the sewer district, but county officials offered to allow him to join it if he asks prior to their adoption of the district, which should come on Sept. 25.

The county is also dealing with a change to the Oak Orchard Sewer District, for which a proposed expansion in the Captain’s Grant community was rejected by property owners when initially proposed. Property owners have since asked that the expansion take place in their community, and the council agreed on Tuesday to have notices posted to begin the process of public hearings once again.

Also on Sept. 18:

• Council members heard a presentation from Lts. Sally and Chaz Engle of the Salvation Army, noting the work the group does for those in need in Sussex County and around the world and requesting the council’s support. The couple said the group is working to expand in Sussex County, where Seaford has already proven to be a core area of activity, with more volunteers needed for leadership positions in the eastern part of the county.

• The council presented a check for $130,098 to the University of Delaware’s Agricultural Extension, which funds a variety of programs for agricultural producers and the public, including research, 4H, safety and disaster recovery. The county provides about one-quarter of the funding for a safety position at the extension.

Phillips encouraged the extension to look into affordable irrigation methods for small and irregular agricultural lands, noting that only 22 percent of the state’s agricultural lands are irrigated and that much of Sussex County’s ag lands are small and irregular parcels, which can be prohibitively expensive to irrigate. He pointed to this summer’s devastating drought as evidence for the need for irrigation.

“We won’t be able to produce enough corn for the state’s broiler industry,” Phillips warned of future water issues, adding that such dry lands were also vulnerable to sale for development as they failed to produce enough crops to be viable for small farmers.

• The council approved a contract with Insurance Buyers Group for no more than $25,700, to examine the county’s health insurance policy for possible savings while still being an attractive employer. Cole said he felt the county should consider keeping its “Cadillac”-level policy for current employees but perhaps offer a “Buick”-level policy to new hires.

• The council passed a resolution contracting with the Indian River Volunteer Fire Company, out of Millsboro, which allows the company to qualify to issue up to $450,000 in bonds to purchase a new pumper truck. As with most of the area’s fire companies, members said growth was fueling a rapid increase in demand for fire service.

• Council members voted unanimously to approve wastewater service to the Woodlands at Peppers Creek, a 10-townhome community in Dagsboro, extended from the Dagsboro sewer district. The project is expected to be completed within 30 days.

• The council issued portions of its annual $25,000 municipal police grants to seven departments: to Milford, about $2,500 for a generator; to Seaford, about $22,000 for a vehicle; to Lewes, about $4,200 for radio equipment; to South Bethany and Laurel, their full $25,000 annual allotment for vehicles; and to Ellendale, $5,000 for salaries. The Ellendale grant raised some eyebrows, as the town recently disbanded its police service, but Councilman Lynn Rogers said they wanted to hire some part-time police protection. Cole questioned the fairness of that provision, citing the council’s refusal to provide police grants to Henlopen Acres, which does not have its own municipal police.

• Council members also unanimously approved the renewal of a lease for the Mid-Sussex Rescue Squad for Fire Station 106 and the purchase of several new vehicles for county use.

• The council voted to re-advertise and re-notice a public hearing in the appeal of a previous denial of LaCross Homes’ 320-lot cluster subdivision, citing that — while not required — notification of the hearing had not been made to the applicant but had been promised. A second appeal scheduled Tuesday was also set for re-advertising and re-notice for the same reason.

• Finally, the council voted to give grants to several area organizations and idividuals: $2,500 to the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation; $250 to Indian River High School for an Orange Bowl trip; $250 for a scholarship to a local student for the National Youth Leadership Foundation; and $2,500 to Lewes Town Cats.