County studies land trust model


Affordable- to moderately-priced housing once again topped the agenda of the Sussex County Council, at the Nov. 15 meeting.

Members of the Diamond State Community Land Trust (CLT) brought a model for Sussex and Kent counties before Sussex County Council — one making specific reference to county-initiated moderately-priced housing units (MPHUs).

The county has been working on a moderately-priced housing program that would offer bonus zoning densities to developers, in exchange for some percentage of total residential units priced for the working class. That program would be available only to three-year Sussex County residents employed in the county for at least a year and earning less than 175 percent of the county’s median family income.

The Diamond State CLT program isn’t developed to that fine detail yet, but the programs share one important common element: restrictions on resale, to guarantee the housing stock in perpetuity.

Skeptics of the county’s efforts to encourage development of MPHUs have suggested a little bonus density alone won’t address the problem. Housing prices will still be too high (or working class wages too low, depending on how you look at it), they say.

And that’s because the real money is in the dirt — the land itself — not in the wood and shingles. Early on, the county’s own Bill Lecates (Community Development and Housing), recognized the moderately-priced program wouldn’t go on its own — it would have to walk hand in hand with CLTs.

It’s probably no coincidence that Lecates serves on the Diamond State CLT board of directors, alongside Ann Marie Townshend of the Office of State Planning Coordination (OSPC).

Townshend introduced the speakers, and right at the outset, Council Member George Cole said he like the idea. He did voice one doubt, though.

“My only concern is, if you combine Kent and Sussex counties, maybe the program’s not as successful,” he added. “People like to be localized in their (charitable) giving.”

Diamond State CLT Board Secretary Marlena Gibson said they had planned to focus on Sussex County, initially, and part of Diamond State’s mission would include the support of town-, and even neighborhood-level, CLTs.

Gibson explained why it was important to start building a CLT now, before the “affordability gap” widened.

“The cost of housing has been going up very, very quickly over the last few years,” she said.

While incomes are climbing too, they aren’t keeping pace, Gibson said. Implicitly, ensuring working class access to housing is of benefit to the community as a whole, so government tends to subsidize some form of assistance programs. But as the affordability gap continues to grow, so does the “subsidy gap,” Gibson explained.

“Over time, it requires more and more subsidy to help the same kind of families buy the same kind of homes,” she said, referring to her notes.

CLTs retain subsidies’ bang for the buck, and preserve affordable housing stock, by balancing public assistance at purchase time with agreements on the price at which the homes can be resold. That would be tied to some kind of formula, but Gibson said they hadn’t worked theirs out yet, or indeed, just what type of formula they would use. She mentioned appraisal-based, indexed or itemized as three standard choices.

As the CLT name implies, administrative land management is the primary price controller. The Diamond State CLT would control a land lease, giving them the ability to further restrict resale — and also generate some revenue via lease fees.

Other anticipated revenue sources include grants, private cash donations, public subsidies, land donations or bargain sales and loans.

For now, Diamond State CLT is sharing space with the Delaware Housing Coalition. For more information, e-mail mkm@housingforall.org.

Shining a spotlight on Diamond State CLT’s youth, council followed their presentation with a formal tribute to Bernice Edwards (director, First State Community Action). First State is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

And council presented a check for $20,000 to the National Council on Agricultural Life & Labor Research (NCALL).

NCALL’s Lucia Campos, charged with homeownership counseling, thanked the council and described her organization’s work with financial literacy (and bilingual education) and financial advice for first-time homebuyers of low to moderate income. NCALL first established an office in Sussex County some 15 years ago, Campos said.

In other business, council finally approved the Spring Breeze clustered subdivision (near Angola), down 40 lots from the proposed 275 the county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission unanimously denied — twice.

They nearly went back to the P&Z for a third try. This is the application that fueled the county’s efforts to clarify its subdivision appeals ordinance. Among other ambiguities, it seems there’s no limit to the number of times an applicant can appeal P&Z’s decision to council, if council keeps remanding the decision.

County Attorney Jim Griffin has incorporated some additional elements there, including a right of appeal for any parties that consider themselves aggrieved, not just applicants who feel they’ve been aggrieved by a denial.

The Spring Breeze applicants have tested the subdivision appeals process, but the proposed project also illuminated possible weaknesses within Sussex County’s year-old clustering ordinance (enacted August 2004).

According to P&Z’s Shane Abbott, the developers originally applied for a 169-lot subdivision — but withdrew their application once council passed the clustering ordinance. They resubmitted a plan for 275 lots, as noted, and according to Abbott, that proposal did meet the technical cluster requirements (lot size, density, percentage of open space, etc.).

However, the P&Z commissioners unanimously denied the application, suggesting the developers hadn’t designed anything superior to a standard subdivision. The applicants considered P&Z’s decision subjective and appealed to council, presenting new evidence.

That in of itself created a problem — another one Griffin is working to remedy.

Cole moved to uphold the P&Z’s decision to deny the application, citing development out of character with the surrounding rural area, and what he considered less wetlands protection than provided under standard subdivision.

Council Member Lynn Rogers joined him on that vote, citing “weak or nonexistent” amenities and the fact that clustering, on the heavily wooded lot, would actually lead to more clearing of trees than a standard subdivision.

That motion failed 2-3. Council Member Vance Phillips suggested the definition of superior design was indeed subjective. Government’s job was to encourage good land planning through clear standards, he said, not handicap would-be developers by asking them to hit a “moving target.”

Council Member Dale Dukes concurred, saying the P&Z hadn’t considered the potential positives of development as a clustered subdivision — only the negatives. That made it a 2-2 tie, to Council President Finley Jones, and he voted it down.

But rather than send Spring Breeze back to the P&Z (again), Jones suggested council members set conditions themselves this time.

Dukes, who in recent weeks said he’d never felt the clustering ordinance should have been used to garner additional lots, recommended an additional reduction in density. He moved to approve the project with an attached list of conditions, modifying one to set maximum lots at 176, still a few more than the developers could have received under standard subdivision.

Cole still objected, citing the 16,000 lots around the county already approved and just waiting for construction to commence. Rogers voted no because he wanted to clarify a point related to the size of the proposed swimming pool, but the motion passed 3-2.

Later that day, council members unanimously conferred with the P&Z, approving a conditional use near Cedar Neck Road without a hitch. The P&Z unanimously approved the Design Consultants Group application for 64 multifamily housing units on 16 acres of land, north of Sandy Cove Road, last month. Council did likewise on Nov. 15.

The development lies adjacent Bethany Club Tennis (also slated for development as a multi-family project). Attorney Eugene Bayard, representing owner Joe Goldstein, said his client planned to provide a tennis court for this project as well (and a pool and other amenities).