County ends clustering moratorium

Sussex County Council unanimously adopted an amendment to the Cluster Development Ordinance at the Jan. 31 council meeting, closing a bonus-density loophole and thereby deactivating the county’s recent moratorium on new applications for clustered subdivision.

County Administrator Bob Stickels joked that applicants were already lining up in the hallway outside the council chambers, waiting on the vote, but 24 hours later, county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) staff said they were actually still waiting on their first new application.

Clustered subdivision has proven a highly popular option with developers, for various reasons (design flexibility, lower infrastructure costs). But council as a whole soon came to agree that savvy land planners were finding ways to push the Agricultural-Residential (AR-1) district’s two-units-per-acre density to the absolute limit.

They’d found ways to fit more homes onto a parcel, using clustering instead of the old standard subdivision.

And they’ll still be able to do that, in designated growth zones (Town Centers, Developing Areas). But if they want to build clustered subdivisions out in the county’s low-density countryside, they’ll have to take 25 percent off the top. (Developers calculate permitted density based on the remaining 75 percent of total acreage.)

That makes clustered subdivisions a little more like residential-planned communities (RPCs), where developers subtract acreage they know they’re going to have to set aside in streets and stormwater management.

Council Member George Cole has opposed clustering since its inception and called the amendment a step in the right direction.

Conversely, Council Member Vance Phillips has supported clustering’s effectiveness at preserving open space (developers get smaller minimum lot sizes, but must set aside 30 percent of the total acreage in open space) and suggested council might want to take it a step further.

“If we were to reduce 7,500-square-foot lots (as permitted under clustering) down to 4,000- or 5,000-square feet, wouldn’t we get more open space?” he asked. “As long as we don’t increase density,” he emphasized.

Cole said he wasn’t hearing a lot of complaints from people in the rural county that lot sizes were too large. Rather, he said, most of the complaints surrounding cluster subdivisions were that the lots were too small and they were out of character with the surrounding properties.

P&Z Chair Lawrence Lank agreed there had been complaints along those lines. “If you’re looking at specific lot sizes, they’re definitely out of character,” he said.

But Council President Lynn Rogers said he’d been hearing just the opposite – that people liked the added flexibility in how they could develop their land. He did admit there might be some other loopholes to close in the Cluster Development Ordinance, though, regarding what should or should not be considered “open space.”

Rogers suggested the intent had been to encourage recreational amenities in the open space set-asides, but some developers had merely used that 30-percent of total acreage to accommodate stormwater management or the like.

“There are good developers out there, but there are others who will take it to the limit,” he said.

“Some are good,” Lank agreed. “They leave a nice buffer between their project and the adjacent properties, they put in trails.” But he recommended council take another look at open space and add some more specific definitions regarding active versus passive recreation.

In other business, council approved a roughly $25,000 contract with geoscientific consultants Duffield Associates, by a 4-1 vote. Phillips objected to the expenditure, suggesting council could probably find qualified volunteers to hammer out a Sussex County-specific version of pending state regulations governing wellhead protection and groundwater recharge.

And it was a significant day for the county engineering department, as County Engineer Mike Izzo and Thor Young (Stearns & Wheler) presented requests for three major wastewater studies, adding up to nearly $1.6 million.

Izzo warned council beforehand that there might be a little sticker shock. However, the studies would produce more than just lines on a page, or a book on a shelf, he assured them. Rather, the county could expect “real world” documents that would take the department straight from study into design and construction, he said.

“The heart of the project involves work in the Dagsboro-Frankford Planning Area (DFPA),” Young pointed out. The Dagsboro-Frankford Facility Plan topped the list at roughly $350,000. Nearly $268,000 will go for a hydrogeological study at the Piney Neck Regional Wastewater Facility (PNRWF), with another $177,000 for a preliminary engineering report.

The PNRWF treats all of the wastewater coming from the Dagsboro-Frankford area. Between pending developments and existing developments that aren’t served, engineers estimate the PNRWF will need to be expanded to handle about 1 million gallons of wastewater per day.

The plant is currently rated for 200,000 gallons per day, but it’s approaching that limit, having treated 140,000 gallons per day in 2003 and 2004.