County pauses to amend clustering

About a month ago, Sussex County Council members started considering some changes to the cluster subdivision ordinance (enacted in August of 2004), and got right back on it after the Thanksgiving break.

They still haven’t settled on just what those changes will be. However, by a 4-1 vote at the Nov. 29 council meeting, they resolved to impose a moratorium on new cluster subdivisions. The moratorium will last 120 days or until council adopts the “contemplated amendments to the Cluster Subdivision Ordinance” (from the resolution).

As County Administrator Bob Stickels pointed out, applicants can still apply for standard subdivisions, changes of zone or conditional uses.

Council is revisiting the ordinance because developers have discovered ways to work additional lots into a subdivision by using clustering.

It was originally intended to encourage large pools of open space (as opposed to the checkerboard pattern of open back yards likely to occur with standard subdivision, for instance), and some council members feel the ordinance has succeeded in that regard.

Council Member George Cole has opposed that premise from the outset, however, saying clustering doesn’t really require any more open space than developers already had to provide. For instance, setback areas and stormwater retention ponds aren’t exactly voluntary contributions, like parks or playgrounds would be.

All of that remains a matter for further debate; but at least on the issue of density-neutral, council seemed of one mind.

Council Member Vance Phillips didn’t like the 120 days, though, suggesting they could adopt amendments in less than half that time. He recommended a 45-day moratorium instead, but that motion died for lack of a second. Council Member Dale Dukes moved to adopt the resolution as written, and that motion proceeded.

Dukes said he’d never voted for a moratorium before. Although he said he considered it appropriate in this instance, he also said he hoped to see council put the amendments to the cluster ordinance “on the fast track,” and get it lifted as quickly as possible.

In fact, council has already introduced a draft ordinance for consideration. Cole would like to see cluster subdivisions strictly within development districts; Dukes wants to keep the option open to all agricultural-residential (AR) lands, but in low-density areas has recommended a 25-percent reduction to gross acreage before calculating project density.

Phillips added a wrinkle on Nov. 29, saying he’d like to keep the option open and encourage developers to build in and around town centers by offering four units per acre in those areas (where central sewer and water is already available).

Cole objected. As it stands, developers would have to apply for a rezoning to get that density, he said, which gave council an opportunity to review the projects.

Appearing increasingly unsure that he’d want to support whatever amendments to the cluster ordinance his colleagues ultimately recommended, Cole nonetheless supported the moratorium. “At the least, it will give (P&Z) staff a chance to catch up,” he said.

Phillips offered the sole dissent. “I feel it’s inappropriate to vote on something as significant as this without a public hearing,” he said.

As Stickels earlier pointed out, council members were able to move forward with the moratorium — without a public hearing — by imposing a time limit, and adopting it as a resolution. If they’d chosen to enact a moratorium of indefinite duration, they would have had to pass it as an ordinance and comply with a more stringent set of procedures, he said.

In other business, council passed ordinances to set front footage rates and service charges in the newly constructed Bayview Estates and Sea Country Estates Sanitary Sewer Districts. Under old business, council denied Gregory and Patricia White’s conditional-use application, for four detached, multifamily units on a little less than an acre, north of St. George’s United Methodist Church in unincorporated Clarksville.

The vote was 3-1, with Phillips casting the sole supporting vote and Cole abstaining.

Finally, Stickels reminded everyone of the upcoming Caroling on The Circle event (Monday, Dec. 5, on The Circle in Georgetown). Festivities will start at 6:30 p.m., but the event doubles as the county’s big annual food drive, and the county is asking anyone who would like to attend to bring some canned goods or other nonperishable items.

Anyone who can’t attend, but would like to donate, can drop off canned goods seven days a week, 24 hours a day, at the County Administrative Office Building (on The Circle), Stickels advised.