Estuary unveils state/county disconnect

Though there is local opposition to the proposed Estuary development off Double Bridges Road near South Bethany, the area is clearly marked for development in Sussex County’s land-use plan, as a portion of the Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though – at least to those following relations between Sussex County and state government – that fact is in conflict with Livable Delaware state development strategies.

The 742 acres that developers are asking to carve into 1,060 lots, if the county so permits, is characterized by the state as a Level 4 area – the most stringently restricted for development purposes – according to the state’s 2004 strategies report. Seeking to deter development in the Level 4-designated areas, the state will not pay for infrastructure upgrades, such as making improvements to roads and providing grants for sewer, and usually opposes development, according to Constance Holland, the director of Delaware’s Office of State Planning Coordination (OSPC).

“We certainly don’t want to see any development in Level 4 (areas),” Holland said. “It is in conflict with our state strategies.”

But, in the case of The Estuary, most state agencies did not oppose Level 4 development when provided the opportunity. Because of the difference in development strategy at the county, only one agency opposed The Estuary in a 2005 multi-agency Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) review of the proposed subdivision, which would add more than 700 homes and a shopping center to the area, according to that review.

In the PLUS review, every state agency – other than the state Office of Historic Preservation – merely asked that the developer be sensitive to the environmentally sensitive area near the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge. Palisades Land LLC environmental consultants acknowledged state concerns in Aug. 11 responses to the review, but the plan has generated tremendous concern from some local officials, who believe approval of the massive development by the historically development-friendly county council is all but a done deal. (Palisades Land did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)

“We’ve got problems when there’s a disconnect between the county and the state (governments),” County Councilman George Cole (R-District 4) said, citing the differences in development strategies between the two.

Ultimately, though, the zoning decision will be decided at the county level – despite what some local leaders consider a serious problem. The Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission will hold the first public hearing on the proposed development at 6 p.m. on Thursday in County Council Chambers in Georgetown.

“The county has the ability,” to approve – or disapprove – the plan, said Sen. George Bunting (D–Bethany Beach). Bunting said his major concerns center on traffic on Camp Barnes and Double Bridges Roads. “They have a comprehensive land use plan, whether you like it or dislike it.”

County Council President Lynn Rogers (D-District 3) called the county land use plan’s Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area a “strongly scrutinized zone,” adding that the type of sewer proposed with a project is important.

In The Estuary plan that will be heard publicly on Thursday, a central county sewer hookup is proposed, resolving a problem with the proposed localized wastewater treatment facility that was cited as a factor in the 2003 denial of The Palisades development on the same land, by the same owners.

That change will likely make the zoning easier for commissioners and council members to approve Thursday and possibly sometime in the near future, despite the clear – albeit underlying – discontent at the state level for development in environmentally sensitive areas.

“It’s been a big issue that the state and the county a lot of the times aren’t on the same page. There is a disconnect,” Bunting said. “That’s a real concern I have.”