Planners recommend density bonus change

Despite a change one county official said could make the ordinance “unworkable,” Sussex County’s planning and zoning commissioners on Wednesday recommended approval of an ordinance that would allow county officials to trade density restrictions in certain residential developments for cash.

Under the revised ordinance, developers could be allowed to build up to four residential units per acre in an agricultural/residential zone that calls for two single-family, detached homes per acre. The resulting revenue from the density trade would be used for open-space preservation and developers would be required to adhere to stricter buffer and open-space requirements within the development.

A stipulation in the original language that would allow developers applying under the ordinance to receive a quicker review process was left out of the commissioners’ recommendation, however.

“That’s probably one of the only carrots we’re offering,” County Councilman Vance Phillips (R-5th) said Wednesday of the fast-tracked reviews. “It could be the kind of modification that makes the program unworkable. We’ll have to see.”

Some have denounced the ordinance as developer-friendly and environmentally-unfriendly. The “density trade ordinance,” as Phillips calls it, would restrict such development to growth zones, which do include the environmentally sensitive overlay that was approved in 2003 to protect Sussex County’s sullied Inland Bays from pollution through development.

Commissioner Benjamin Gordy on Wednesday called the environmentally sensitive development district an “oxymoron” and questioned whether officials should be directing growth there. Gordy stopped short of recommending that officials strip the overlay from the ordinance.

Phillips, author of the “density bonus” ordinance, has argued that the measure would close a loophole that allows developers to ask for 12 units to each acre and said it would direct growth to places where county officials have identified as proper areas for future development.

Another possible amendment to the ordinance that was discussed by the council last week would force county officials to preserve open space in the same area of the county where the extra density was approved through the density trade ordinance. That amendment was not added Tuesday but will likely be discussed when county council next hears the ordinance. It is yet unclear when that will happen.

“Everything is still on the table,” Phillips said. “We’ll discuss it at the next meeting.”