County planners give thumbs-up to gift shop

There may soon be a new gift shop along Route 54 outside of Fenwick Island. Members of the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) unanimously recommended approval at their Jan. 4 special meeting for a conditional use that allows Edward Chiasson to establish a nautical-themed gift shop on his property near the intersection of Route 54 and 20.

After previously deferring the decision, the commission voted to approve the application with several conditions, including limits on operation of the business to between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., seven days a week, year-round, with a maximum of two employees.

Tackling the issue with which they were most concerned during the hearing on the application, commissioners also required that Chiasson keep sale displays of durable items outside the building a minimum of 25 feet from the front property line. They also required him to move a chain-link fence and storage building onto his property from a neighbor’s property.

Driveways and parking areas were required to be paved, any Dumpsters screened and a single sign limited to no more than 32 square feet with a single light pointed at it. The final plan is also subject to review of the P&Z.

There may also be new commercial activity down the street from the business, thanks to another approval from the commission Wednesday afternoon.

The commission voted 4-0 (new commissioner I.G. Burton abstaining) to approve a change of zoning from AR-1 agricultural-residential to C-1 general commercial for a 6.49-acre parcel at the northeast corner of Route 54 and Old Mill Bridge Road (Road 381), applied for by PGS Properties.

Commmissioner Rodney Smith thanked P&Z staffers for providing him with minutes and other information of the P&Z hearing on the issue some six months prior, at which a decision was deferred while comments from agencies were received.

In making his motion for approval, Smith noted that the area was already developed with C-1 and B-1 business uses, being located on Route 54, as recommended on the county’s comprehensive development plan (CDP). He particularly noted that the parcel was being limited to C-1 and B-1 uses for the future and not permitted for multi-family development.

In a related decision, the commissioners also approved (again, 4-0, with Burton abstaining) PGS Properties’ application for a change of zoning from AR-1 to HR-1 high-density residential for a 12.68-acre parcel neighboring the first parcel (again, deferred for agency comments in July).

In recommending approval for the change to HR-1, Smith noted that the parcel is within the environmentally sensitive developing district (ESDD) as established by the CDP, allowing for townhouses, apartments and condominiums. He said the planned project met the guidelines for density in the ESDD.

Again, Smith pointed to existing development in the area, which also includes residential developments such as Bayside, Keenwick Sound, Swann Cove and Refuge at Dirickson Creek, as well as the B-1 and C-1 business uses.

Smith noted the county engineering department had said the sewer system had an overall capacity that was adequate to allow for the maximum density of the property but a potential capacity problem in a local segment. He emphasized that the developers would be required to comply with the allocation of capacity as dictated by the engineering department.

In other business, it was again 4-0 for approval of a final record plan for Phase I of the Bay Forest residential planned community on Road 347, north of Millville. The phase includes 201 single-family lots and 126 multi-family units.

The commission took note of the single significant change in the plan from the original application: a request to change front-yard setbacks from 30 feet (a condition of initial approval) to 5 feet, in order to allow larger back yards.

Commissioners agreed to that change on the multi-family lots but asked for a 10-foot setback on single-family lots.

It was another approval — this time entirely unanimous — for William and Cynthia Hoban for a subdivision creating three lots on Road 366 from a 7.76-acre parcel. Access to the lots is through a 50-foot right-of-way created with an abandoned road and existing driveway.

The three parcels will measure 2.2 acres, 1.84 acres and 4.07 acres, with the largest containing the existing dwelling.

Commissioners had the choice to approve the application as submitted or require a public hearing. They opted for the former, noting that any further subdivision of the parcels would require an application for a major subdivision.

It was also good news for Quality Upholstery & Canvas Inc., with a one-year time extension granted from its initial January 2005 approval for a conditional use. P&Z Director Lawrence Lank did note that the commission had received a call from neighbors stating they still objected to the use, but commissioners granted the extension, 5-0.

In other business before the commission, the issue of reconsideration/re-hearing of applications previously decided by the commission was raised by attorney Jim Fuqua. He requested just such a re-hearing for a client who had recently received an unfavorable decision from P&Z.

It raised a larger concern for commissioners just as new ordinances regarding reconsideration and re-hearings are being put into place.

Acting P&Z Chairman Robert Wheatley asked Fuqua to explain what was special about the case that it couldn’t be handled through a re-application or with an appeal to the Sussex County Council.

Fuqua said his reading of the existing ordinances didn’t require a justification for a re-hearing, as would be the case in a re-consideration case before a judge, where it could be justified by an error in the original decision.

Instead, Fuqua said his client simply had different information he wanted to submit in response to the denial by the commission. “It’s basically a mulligan,” he said with a note of humor.

Wheatley said he was concerned approving a re-hearing without extraordinary circumstances would mean a wave of such requests. He noted that an appeal to the county council would be based on the existing record, with a re-hearing request basically being a request to create an entirely new record.

Wheatley allowed that a re-hearing had been granted in three previous cases, though it was noted that at least one case had been justified by ineffectual council. “It’s reasonable,” he said of Fuqua’s request. “I just don’t like it.”

He went on to explain to Burton, veteran commissioner to commissioner of just over a month, “Sometimes information comes to light right before or during a hearing that if the commission or the applicant had had it, it would have cast a different light. Mr. Fuqua is suggesting that that is the case, and our ordinance doesn’t fully address that situation.”

“What Mr. Fuqua is suggesting is within the realm of reason,” Wheatley concluded, grudgingly.

It was noted that the proposed ordinances regarding reconsideration and re-hearing — unlike the existing ones — do provide for a procedure and requirements that would be needed to justify such a re-hearing. Under the existing ordinances, re-hearing requests are allowed with no special requirements and, depending on who is interpreting the ordinances, nearly automatically granted.

Wheatley joined his fellow commissioners in bowing to the inevitable, voting with an “Aye, I guess,” before noting that if the commission had voted against the re-hearing, Fuqua could simply have appealed that decision to the county council. “The way it’s written now, this was probably the best thing to do,” he concluded.

Larger issues were also raised regarding the county’s proposed changes in parking ordinances, thanks to the planned Bayshore Plaza II commercial development off Route 24.

After discussing the commercial space, commissioners agreed that there needed to be some further discussion of parking allowances for front setback areas, particularly in how they are measured compared to DelDOT rights-of-way. Wheatley said further clarification was needed so builders would know what was and was not allowed.

Finally, the commission took action to sort itself out, holding a reorganization vote to formally name a new chairman and vice-chairman.

Wheatley was named acting-chairman in the wake of the death of P&Z Chairman and longtime Commissioner Jack Allen in July. The commissioners at that time agreed to hold off voting a new chairman until all five commission seats were once again occupied. With Burton in place, they voted unanimously to appoint Wheatley to the chairmanship, and Commissioner Benjamin Gordy as vice-chairman.