County approves Harlton development

County officials approved a plan on Feb. 8 to build 197 single-family homes on environmentally sensitive land northwest of Millville and across the street from a larger development approved last month.

Representatives of the developers, Harlton Acquisitions LLC, argued last Thursday that the plan met the requirements of the environmentally sensitive overlay and the underlying AR-1 zone. The approval was somewhat unique, however, in that the project was okayed on the same night of its public hearing.

“It is an area where growth is anticipated and planned for by the county,” said Jim Fuqua, a Georgetown attorney representing the developers.

Fuqua and others presented on Feb. 8 the plan to subdivide just more than 90 acres of AR-1 land into 197 lots for the new development. The entrance of the planned development, off of Old Mill and Murray Roads, will sit directly across the street from that of Bethany Ridge, a 227-home development approved by county officials in early January.

Bethany Ridge also lies in the environmentally sensitive overlay zone — or environmentally sensitive development area. (It is referred to differently in the code and in the 2003 Sussex County Comprehensive Land Use plan.)

The overlay — birthed through the 2003 update in an effort to protect land surrounding the county’s inland bays — has been widely criticized for being too lenient, even toothless. Development has, in fact, overwhelmed the area. But despite complaints, the zone is, as many have rightly pointed out, in an area where the county supports growth.

Environmental advocates and members of the Center for the Inland Bays’ Citizens Advisory Committee recently urged county officials working on the 2007 land-use plan update to implement ordinances to further protect sensitive county land. The land-use plan will serve as the guiding document for county land-use decisions over the next five years and supporting ordinances may implement its vision.

Now, though — and much to the dismay of environmental stewards in the area — the overlay zone seems to be one of the most developed areas in the county. More than 1,000 homes were approved late last year for a development called The Estuary on land adjacent to the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, in the overlay zone.

While residents living close to the latest proposal expressed concerns last Thursday about effects on neighboring lands, none expressed the overall disapproval with the Harlton property — or Bethany Ridge — that was common during The Estuary’s approval process. Similarly, no state agencies opposed the project in a July 2005 state review of the proposal.

“We’re going to retain as much open space — especially in the forest areas — as possible,” said Kevin McBride, an engineer working on the project who said that 27 percent of the land is currently open farmland and 73 percent is forested.

Developers plan to utilize the county’s cluster ordinance for the Harlton property, which allows for smaller lots to retain more open space, to keep 35 percent of the land open. The development, if built as presented, will also include tennis courts, more than 30 acres of paths and walkways, and a 6,000 square-foot community center with a pool.