Proposed density ordinance debated

A state official joined others last week in denouncing a Sussex ordinance to sell additional density for cash in certain condominium and townhome developments. Bryan Hall, a state planner for Sussex, with the Office of State Planning Coordination, said county officials should finish work on this year’s comprehensive plan update before hearing further land-use ordinances.

The comprehensive plan, a guiding document for county land use, is currently being updated with the help of a county consultant, who will also help county officials draft ordinances to support that plan.

“This is a very crucial time,” Hall said during a public hearing in front of the county Planning and Zoning Commission last week. “Given that the growth zones are currently in question through the comprehensive plan process … we would encourage that this body and council,” hold off on approving the density ordinance.

The ordinance, championed by Councilman Vance Phillips (R-5th) as a way to create a revenue stream that would in turn help preserve county open space, would allow developers to build up to four multi-family units on an acre in agricultural, residential zones that call for single-family development and two units per acre.

County council plans to hold a public hearing at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to garner further public opinion and consider adopting the legislation. Planning and zoning commissioners deferred a decision last Thursday.

Through the ordinance, developers would have to pay a fee of $15,000 or $20,000 for each unit that exceeds density requirements, and that money would be used for open-space preservation. The ordinance also requires developers to preserve more open space — a county term not yet fully defined — within developments and add buffers to shield the developments from county roads.

Developers would only be able to exceed density requirements through the ordinance in county growth zones — including the Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area, an overlay created in 2003 around the Inland Bays to protect the sullied bays from further pollution.

State reports note that the bays “are becoming increasingly urbanized and degraded by encroaching development” and natural resources officials are currently attempting to approve a groundbreaking regulation that would clean up those bays. Development, next to agriculture, is the largest contributor of nutrient pollution to the “highly-enriched” bays, causing low oxygen levels, fish kills and a generally unhealthy underwater ecological environment.

While some supported the ordinance at last week’s public hearing, others accused Phillips of pandering to the county’s development community and denounced the plan to allow developers to buy their way out of county zoning code.

“I don’t think we should be selling our density for dollars,” said Wayne Baker, mayor of Dagsboro.

Harbeson residents R.K. and Ann Reese, in a letter addressed to Sussex County Council, the planning and zoning commission and the people of Sussex, on June 6, agreed.

“The proposed ordinance has multiple bad outcomes for both the citizens of Sussex County and potentially for the county itself,” they wrote. “The only beneficiaries are the developers.”

Mable Granke, a longtime county watchdog, stressed the importance of defining open space before approving an ordinance that, in part, revolves around that definition.

Open space is currently defined in county code as any structure on a lot that is not a building, a road or a loading area. Stormwater retention ponds, which are normally required of developers, and wetlands — some of which are protected from development — can be included in the “open space” area in a development, according to county officials. Golf courses can also be considered open space.

County council failed to introduce an ordinance that was drafted after updating the comprehensive plan in 2003 that would have defined open space. Ordinances approved after that update included one establishing the environmental overlay and the cluster development option, which also revolves around that definition.

In a memo issued on June 12, Phillips touted the “density-for-dollars” ordinance, claiming that it creates a revenue source for further open-space preservation and closes a loophole that allows developers to build up to 12 multi-family units to an acre in agricultural, residential zones.

Lawrence Lank, director of county planning and zoning, said he cannot remember any time when the county allowed 12 units to an acre in such zones. Phillips also expedited a review of the ordinance, Lank said.

“It does not create a by-right provision,” Phillips wrote in the June 12 memo. “Rather, applications continue to stand on their own merit.”

Tom Ford, an architect with Land Design, a land planning firm in Ocean View, agreed with Phillips in supporting the ordinance at last Thursday’s public hearing. He said his connection to the development community did not sway his opinion — an issue for which Phillips himself has been criticized. Ford’s opinion on the ordinance, he said, “has everything to do with my understanding.

“It’s appropriate with adequate infrastructure,” Ford said, adding that building four units on acres where the county’s central sewer system can accommodate four units is financially efficient. “I’m in favor of this ordinance.”