Density trade addition discussed at county council meeting

Sussex County officials discussed an ordinance Tuesday that would allow developers of multi-family units to utilize an ordinance approved last April to exceed building density requirements by paying the county.

An ordinance already in place allows single-family home developers in certain areas to violate standard lot-size requirements by paying the county money that is then used to preserve land.

Developers pay $15,000 to $20,000 for each unit that exceeds standard density regulations.

“That money goes to preserve open space in the county,” said Councilman Vance Phillips (R-5th), who proposed the original density trade ordinance and requested the discussion’s placement on Tuesday’s agenda.

Phillips said Tuesday that a potential ordinance could include “standards.” It could, for instance, mandate larger, landscaped buffers to protect the surrounding environment, he noted.

“It sounds good,” said Councilman George Cole (R-4th). “(But) I don’t think you’ll ever see him come up with an ordinance that has all those standards in it. It’s a pipe dream. It doesn’t actually happen in real life.”

As approved on April 4, 2004, Phillips’ Cluster Density Trade ordinance permits the violation of already lenient lot-size requirements in cluster, single-family-home developments in agricultural/residential zones.

The cluster ordinance, designed to support the current land use plan, allows developers to build up to 5.8 single-family units to an acre in AR-1 and AR-2 zones by preserving 30 percent of open space in the development. Standard county zoning only allows just more than two single-family units to the acre in AR-1-zoned land.

The density trade program directs the higher density toward growth zones around towns and development districts, including the Environmentally Sensitive Development Areas around the inland bays, and a fee is charged for every unit that exceeds standard density requirements.

Developers pay $15,000 per unit in growth zones around towns and $20,000 per unit in the Environmentally Sensitive overlay. Cole and Council President Dale Dukes (D-1st) questioned, though, why developers would participate in the program when council regularly gives away density for free.

Although it exceeded density requirements in its underlying AR-1 zone, council approved a change of zone for the Lakelyns, a 265-unit mixed-use development south of Millville, in December. Sussex County’s Planning and Zoning Commission had recommended that council deny the application.

“What incentive is there? They’re going to pay $15,000, or $20,000. There’s got to be some benefit or we’re wasting time even discussing it,” Dukes said.

“They have a choice,” Cole added, “pay for it here or get it for free. We’re working on a land-use plan. If this is an idea, let’s throw it into the mix instead of working on it separately.”

Fine details of a potential ordinance were unclear, as was the question whether the county’s land-use plan consultant would have a part in drafting it. Councilmen did informally agree, however, to discuss the possibility further.

“Anytime they want to increase density they will have to pay,” Phillips said, adamantly supporting potential action. “No longer are we just going to give developers higher density just because they have a good attorney. We’ve done that for 30 years.”