Phillips introduces density-for-dollars

Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips (R-4th) introduced a long-awaited ordinance Tuesday that would allow county officials to trade density requirements in multi-family development plans on agricultural and sensitive county land for money.

The ordinance allows for up to four multi-family units per acre in AR-1 zones through conditional-use applications in growth zones, including the Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area.

County code calls for two units per each acre in the AR-1 zone, with multi-family plans only green-lighted through conditional-use applications in front of county council.

An ordinance approved on April 4, 2006, already allows single-family home developers to exceed density requirements for cash. That ordinance has been unsuccessful, victimized by loopholes allowing developers to circumvent the process by receiving a change of zone, which would still be a possibility with the new ordinance.

The ordinances call for fees of $15,000 and $20,000 in the sensitive overlay zone on every unit that exceeds density requirements. Under the ordinances, that money would be used for council-approved open space preservation or recreational measures.

George Cole (R-5th) has been vocal in his opposition to the “density-trade” ordinances, generally arguing that extra density should not be permitted on environmentally sensitive land. (The overlay encompasses the areas around the increasingly-polluted Sussex County Inland Bays, which have been the site of astounding development in the last decade.)

Even Cole, however, called the measure a “good” ordinance — aside from its potential effects on sensitive land. Phillips’ new ordinance calls for 40 percent open space preservation on the development site — which is 10 percent more than in the previously-approved ordinances — and 75-foot vegetated buffers off numbered county roads.

And despite a recent apparent flip-flop on the part of one county councilman, the measure seems to have majority support in Georgetown. Lynn Rogers (D-3rd), who is up for re-election this year, indicated early last month that he would not support the ordinance after voting yes on the similar one last April.

“I don’t want to be blasted for selling all of Sussex County for money,” Rogers said recently. “I don’t want to end up with an ordinance that allows you to buy your way out of the comprehensive plan.”

Cole, the ordinance’s only other opposition, voted to deny the April 2006 ordinance and has consistently denounced the plan.

“We ought to be rezoning property because there’s a need or because it’s compatible, but never for money,” Cole said at an April 10 council meeting.

Phillips has argued that county council approves extra density without receiving money. But the Laurel councilman has done nothing to reverse that trend.

Phillips voted late last year to approve a change of zone from AR-1 outside Millville for The Lakelyns, a 265-unit development mixed with multi-family and single-family lots. Developers plan to build more than three units to the acre there in the Sussex County’s controversial, and perhaps ironic, Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area.

Plans for The Lakelyns have been unique in recent months, with all other development plans meeting density requirements. Other plans such as that one, though, will not be covered under the new ordinance. Those, including single-family zones, can be rezoned as a residential planned community (RPC), as the Lakelyns was with a 4-1 vote, Cole dissenting.

Phillips defended that vote last month, saying the request was a permitted use, and he continued to defend the ordinance, skirting questions about why developers would utilize the density trade ordinances if they circumvent the process by changing zones.

“There is no law that says you can’t have higher density in the ESDA,” Phillips said in April. “The fact is we are allowing higher density. (This ordinance is) putting out there that if you do it, you have to pay for it. It may actually discourage higher density there.”