County considers revisions to clustering

Clustered subdivisions not all Sussex County Council had originally anticipated?

Council Member George Cole broached the question in a formal manner at the Nov. 8 council meeting, asking County Attorney James Griffin to draft an ordinance for introduction next week that would “add a requirement that all (Agricultural-Residential, or AR) cluster developments be located within a development district…”

Cole said he was sensing some problems with the clustered housing ordinance.

“We’re seeing developers go into the (AR) district, get an onsite wastewater collection system, which is sometimes basically just a big drainfield,” he said. “It’s out of character, and the ability to get small lots is a magnet for other developers. I think we should put this clustering back in the development district, where it belongs.”

County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Director Lawrence Lank said he had seen virtually no new applications for residential planned communities (RPCs) since council enacted the clustering ordinance in August 2004. In fact, several applicants had withdrawn their RPC applications to reapply as clustered subdivisions, he said.

Apparently, developers quickly discovered it was possible to get higher density with a clustered subdivision. Lank said the RPC densities were based on net acreage — after a deduction for streets. That basically limits density to around 1.5 units per acre.

The clustered subdivisions are based on gross density — 2 units per acre — and developers had been pushing that ceiling, he said.

Council Member Dale Dukes, frequently at odds with Cole, said he partially agreed, partially disagreed.

“I thought clustering was for the entire county, not just the development districts,” Dukes said. However, in going with cluster subdivision design, he admitted developers were realizing density bonuses much more significant than originally anticipated.

Dukes asked Lank about the possibility of deducting roads, as is done in the RPCs, but in the end the consensus was to require a flat 25 percent reduction from total acreage, before calculating the permitted number of residential units.

Council discussed the enforceability of “superior design” elements, and Council Member Vance Phillips offered a reminder of the ordinance’s positive effects — more open space, smaller lot sizes ultimately encouraging conservation of land elsewhere, wetland protection (in a roundabout way, Lank pointed out) and less impermeable surface.

He suggested clustered subdivisions were still better than “cookie-cutter” subdivisions, even if the density was a little higher.

“Every time you try to cut density, you either limit the housing supply and drive prices up, which goes against everything we’ve been talking about as far as affordable housing in this county, or you eat up more land,” Phillips stated. “Neither consequence is good.”

Cole objected, suggesting many of the projects being approved were highly speculative, and “greed is driving the engine.”

He asked how many approved, subdivided lots there were around the county already (not counting any projects within town limits). County Administrator Bob Stickels pegged that number at 16,000. Lank said that didn’t include projects already in the process (working their way through site plan reviews).

In other business, council approved the Canal Place conditional use, for 87 townhouses at the site currently occupied by the Lynn Lee Village manufactured home park, on Cedar Neck Road. The vote was 4-1, over Cole’s objection.

Given the acreage of the site, at 16.6 acres, the proposed density comes in at 5.2 units per acre. (Two of those acres are actually canals, so the gross density on the buildable portion of the site is actually more like six units per acre). The density is rather high, and Cole referenced the P&Z’s unanimous recommendation to consider the existing 87 manufactured home sewer hookups as an existing noncomformity.

The P&Z unanimously recommended approval at 42 units per acre, and Cole moved to amend the conditional-use application to reflect that lowered density.

However, Council Member Dale Dukes said park tenants had received a substantial $160,000 settlement for the remainder of their 99-year leases. He suggested that settlement would likely prove burdensome for the developers unless they were permitted to build in the medium- to high-density range.

There are several developments of comparable or even higher density along Cedar Neck Road, but Cole has repeatedly argued the neighborhood is becoming increasingly overdeveloped.

And finally, council held public hearing on an ordinance to increase various fees associated with applications and permits.

• Variances and special exceptions petitions before the Board of Adjustments, increased from $150 to $400;

• Changes of zone and conditional uses, increased from $300 to $500; and

• Application for subdivision, increased from $300 to $500 (for major subdivisions, of greater than four lots — the county doesn’t require the same level of site plan review for minor subdivisions).