South Bethany goes on attack with Estuary

More than three years after Sussex County Council denied the rezoning of a monstrous development — then named The Palisades — off Double Bridges Road in the “environmentally sensitive developing area” near the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, the developers are back with another plan that is meeting little resistance at the state level.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24, the County Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider zoning 1,060 lots on 742 acres in the same area for a subdivision now called “The Estuary.”

Problems with a localized sewage plan have gone away and, despite local resistance — including a South Bethany resolution opposing the development — most state agencies haven’t directly opposed the development. Its fate will be determined at the county level.

“I am in opposition to this development, as it will possibly threaten the waterways and cause more congestion,” South Bethany resident Catherine Alred wrote in a letter to the county dated Aug. 9 of this year.

“Traffic through the Cat Hill section of South Bethany is already a problem,” another town resident, Eileen Spangler, wrote in a letter dated a day earlier than Alred’s. “It also threatens the waterways and the Wildlife Refuge.”

Local displeasure was similar in 2003. At least six letters of opposition to the former Palisades development were filed in county records and more unfavorable residents were noted in minutes of 2003 public hearings. On March 27, 2003, the county planning and zoning commission held the first zoning hearing for the then 350-acre, 750-unit, proposed development. Some 21 area residents complained about the development at that hearing, citing possible negative effects on the surrounding environment and raising issues with traffic and the localized sewage system.

County P&Z unanimously deferred the decision. At the April 15, 2003, County Council hearing, problems with the development again centered on the “on-site” wastewater treatment facility. Council unanimously voted to defer the decision one more time before making a ruling on June 3, 2003. At that hearing, council voted 3-2 to deny the rezoning because “the project is out of character with the area and sewer infrastructure is not available.”

In the newest and larger plan, a connection with the county sewer system is proposed and the recent Isaacs Glenn decision might sway the “out of character” ruling. Last month, Council overturned a P&Z decision denying the preliminary plan for Isaacs Glenn, a Milton development, ruling that developments can not be denied because of general concerns. There must be a legal issue, the ruling said.

And in the complete — with developer responses — state PLUS review, only one state agency directly opposed the proposed development near South Bethany.

The State Historic Preservation Office opposed the development in a 2005 review, stating that proposed development will “sacrifice historic farm landscape … and will adversely affect the setting, noise level and view shed of several historic projects nearby.” SHPO’s report also notes that two archaeological sites would be impacted by the site and possible 17th and 18th century sites might be impacted along the creeks.

According to the Palisades Land LLC response, an on-site cemetery will be moved and archaeological impacts have been taken into consideration in the plans.

Though the Office of State Planning Coordination notes that the development is proposed for an environmentally sensitive zone, it does not oppose the plan, instead warning developers to be sensitive to the sensitive area.

Department of Agriculture officials wrote the same in their review of the proposal, asking only that the developer retains some of the “larger, more mature” trees on site, even noting that the department “does not oppose the Estuary.”

And while the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cited problems with the site, officials did not directly oppose development, either. Its report stated that, according to a soil survey, about 80 percent of the soils on site are “wetland associated.” DNREC’s report also noted that the “wildlife area might be negatively affected,” as well as wetlands. Extra buffers leaving existing vegetation were suggested by the state agency.

“Impacts are minimal … buffers are provided,” the developer’s responses read.

South Bethany officials — and some residents — are unpersuaded by the brief responses provided by Palisades Land and remain concerned, even alarmed, by the prospect.

Leading up to the Aug. 24 hearing before P&Z, council members unanimously passed (6-0, with Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson absent) on Aug. 11 their Resolution No. 4-06, which reiterates the objections the town voiced to the previous application, in 2003.

The resolution cites the location’s proximity to the town and the neighboring refuge, wetlands and bay, as well as the potential negative impact thereupon. It says, “…the rural roads serving this area are currently inadequate and unsafe to accommodate the existing traffic, let alone the additional traffic generated by a large new development,” and further cites the development’s location as “remote from any existing infrastructure and municipal services, and therefore violates modern accepted principles of land use.”

On the subject of the roads, the application comes before P&Z at a time when an increasing furor has been raised over the capacity of Double Bridges Road, which is currently also known as Alternate Route 54. Writers of letters to the editors of local newspapers have been up in arms about what they say are increasingly dangerous conditions, with increased volumes of traffic that they say often travels well above the speed limit and any safe speed, as well as a lack of bicycle lanes.

And that was before news spread of the proposed development.

South Bethany officials noted that traffic from The Estuary would add further heavy use to the already-taxed road and those elsewhere in the eastern part of the county, where traffic tie-ups are ever on the increase.

The council members and some of those at the Aug. 11 meeting said they were alarmed that the 22-page report containing environmental concerns from OSPC seemed to imply that if some or all of the requests OSPC made of the developers were met that it would sail through to approval.

“It’s a little frightening,” Councilwoman Marge Gassinger said.

Mayor Gary Jayne described the development as “out in the boonies” and noted plans for a possible shopping center, a la Millville by the Sea, as a proposed mitigating factor for having no other services in the area. But the town is unconvinced that having any sort of internal shopping facility will mitigate the affects of all the development’s residents and visitors on the area’s roads.

In addition to the formal resolution indicating official town opposition, they’re encouraging people to sent letters and faxes indicating individual opposition to the county planning office and asking them show up at the Aug. 24 hearing in person to voice that opposition.

Past planning decisions on the part of the commission and county council weigh heavily on the minds of those concerned about The Estuary. With P&Z sometimes recommending denial of large developments, only to be reversed by council decisions, some wonder whether that might be the case with The Estuary.

The previous denial of The Palisades by council could also suggest a hard road ahead for developers. However, with the on-site sewer issue off the table, council’s decision on The Estuary could be different this time out. South Bethany officials and others living in the area are hoping that they will listen to objections from those who could be most affected by the plan.

In the week leading up to Thursday’s planning and zoning hearing, the Coastal Point will follow the issue. Check on Monday for continuing coverage.