County council shuffles parking ordinances

Sussex County Council did a good impression of the Delaware General Assembly on Dec. 13, loading five public hearings into the long, late-night, last council meeting of the year.
Parking-related ordinances crowded the agenda (pushing land use decisions closer to midnight). Council considered four related issues:

1) Shared parking, serving multiple uses, within the same project and under the same ownership. Council would eventually defer on this one, leaving the record open until Dec. 30.

While the title referenced “same ownership,” the text made clear these shared parking agreements would be “between the owners of record.” Ideally, different business owners within one strip mall (for instance) could coordinate parking needs based on when they expected most of their customers.

Retail shops, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., could share spaces with dinner-only restaurants, for instance. One business uses the spaces during the day. The other uses them at night.

Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Director Lawrence Lank outlined comments from the public hearing before P&Z commissioners, and they included high praise from groups as diverse as the Office of State Planning Coordination (OSPC), developers, the Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT), the Sussex Conservation District and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

OSPC staff liked this ordinance — and the other three — because they all reduced impervious surface (in these cases, in paved parking areas).

Lank recounted the conservation district’s supporting comments — “by promoting more green space on developed parcels the County would also be supporting the District’s goals of improving Delaware’s water quality.”

From SCLT President Wendy Baker’s comments before the P&Z, “excessive parking wastes land, results in stormwater runoff into streams, limits flexibility in site design and deters pedestrian and transit uses.”

Lank submitted all these comments into the record, and developers spoke in support on Dec. 13.

Ocean View land planner Pret Dyer suggested the ordinance could have helped him incorporate some landscaping, or at least “less intensive” stormwater management at Cedar Bay (on Cedar Neck Road, north of Ocean View).

Cedar Bay is an age-restricted community, and shares a large parking lot with the CHEER Coastal Leisure Center. Dyer suggested there was probably some redundancy here (two parking spaces reserved for the same car, as residents drove from one end of the lot to the other to use the center).

Kevin Burdette (McCrone) diverged into promotion for over-under projects (commercial on the first floor, apartments above). However, Council Member George Cole said that he felt parking for such projects probably wouldn’t work in resort areas, where the need for additional parking spikes in the summer.

In Burdette’s example, residents would leave for work and customers of the ground-floor businesses could park in their spots until they returned in the afternoon. But Cole suggested summer visitors were more likely to stay over.

2) A slight reduction in size for off-street parking spaces, plus an allowance for “compact car” parking spaces. Council deferred on this one, too, again leaving the record open until Dec. 30.

Presently, parking spaces must measure a minimum 10- by 20-feet. This ordinance would reduce that requirement to 9-by-18. The compact spaces could be further reduced to 8-by-17, in larger (50 spaces or more) commercial parking lots only.

Again, the various state agencies (OSPC, DNREC) supported the ordinance. However, Ocean View land planner Tom Ford (Land Design) had some choice words for those agencies.

“I’m not surprised when the state says, ‘We’re for smaller parking spaces,’” Ford stated. “I don’t think the state thinks out their recommendations on much of anything.”

If properly written, he said, the ordinance could indeed achieve the benefits cited by state agencies (open space, environment, aesthetics) — and do it without taking anything away from developers, or giving them anything.

But as it stood, Ford said, it would do nothing other than allow developers, who previously might have been able to build 9,000 square feet of retail space (for instance), to build 9,500 square feet.

“You’re missing some connection to landscaping and open space, and I think we need to work on that,” Ford said.

But he cautioned council to beware flat requirements that would lead to “skinny little landscaping strips” — difficult to maintain, too small to accommodate trees and basically more of a nuisance than anything else.

Ford also asked council to consider some alternatives to the standard, rectangular parking space. Motorists could more easily pull into diagonal parking spaces, he pointed out, in turn making it possible to reduce the width of the travelway.

Burdette voiced a related comment, asking council to regulate parking spaces by describing a minimum square footage, with a minimum length and width, rather than “9-by-18” or whatever.

The “compact car” part of the ordinance didn’t seem well-supported. Council Member Dale Dukes suggested 30 percent was too high, and Council Member Lynn Rogers disliked the prospect of too many different kinds and sizes of parking space within the same lot.

Also, council generally agreed people would park in the smaller spaces, no matter how large their cars, if there were no other spots available (and there was some question regarding who would be handle enforcement).

3) Reduce the width of parking lot interior drives, from 25 feet to 24 feet. Slam dunk, unanimous approval.

As Lank noted, this change basically brought Sussex County regulations in line with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and the State Fire Marshal’s Office (OSFM).

4) Change requirements for off-street parking, associated with multifamily dwellings or townhouses, from “three per family unit” to “two per dwelling unit.” Council voted this one down, following Dukes’ suggestions that a ratio system similar to the one used in Ocean City, Md., might be a better way to go.

Per Ocean City Code, developers must provide one parking space for each “efficiency unit,” one-and-a-half spaces for one-bedroom units, two spaces for two-bedroom units, etc. More than three bedrooms: add a half a parking space for each additional bedroom.

This generated some debate about how the county would distinguish a “study” or an “office” from a bedroom, on the site plan. These rooms were sometimes finished as bedrooms, unbeknownst to state planners.

Lank said this was a problem plaguing DNREC regulators as they tried to calculate sewer impacts.

Ford broached another topic — with five children, he said he had a lot of cars in his driveway. “It might require some shuffling, but we deal with it,” he said. Ford said he’d like council to consider counting “piggyback” spots toward the three-, or two-, parking space minimum.

Preston Schell (Ocean Atlantic) spoke in vehement opposition to the three-space requirement. He submitted a booklet of photographs, taken on the morning of July 3, 2004, showing what he considered “seas of asphalt” at some of the coastal developments.

Dyer seconded that. “I have parking spaces that no one’s ever parked in — ever,” he said.

In the end, Dukes’ ratio-based approach garnered enough support to kill the ordinance on the board (3-2). Council will consider a modified ordinance in the new year.

Council Member Vance Phillips objected to the decision. “We have a good ordinance in front of us,” he said. “We have a problem right now, and this is an opportunity to correct it.”

Council President Finley Jones joined him in dissent, agreeing the conversation had strayed afield and council really hadn’t spent enough time discussing the possible merits of the ordinance on the table.

Basically, Cole disliked three out of four of ordinances (interior drive widths being the exception.)

“This is nothing but some whiny developers crying the blues because they don’t want to provide enough parking. It’s all about money,” Cole said. “All this talk about protecting the environment — it’s just a smokescreen.”