County considers concerns over density and wetland buffers

Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton gave a brief presentation to fellow council members this week regarding his concerns about to buffers and density.

“For the 11 years I was on Planning & Zoning, we always discussed it… It was just talked about. It was in our previous comp plan that said we should look at buffers and density. It’s time to quit not talking about it, and it’s time to start talking about it.”

County code states, “The number of dwelling units permitted shall be determined by dividing the gross area by 21,780 SF,” which currently allows for tidal and non-tidal wetlands to be included in the calculation, increasing the number of units permitted versus what would be permitted if wetlands were not included in the calculation.

“To allow on unbuildable — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Burton. “It just never made sense to me. That two units-to-the-acre density calculation is, I think, a generous density. Then, to allow that density to be calculated on lands that are unbuildable just doesn’t make sense to me… I have a tough time with that math formula.”

Burton said that, while this has been the County’s practice in the past, he is unsure from where the calculation stemmed, and he suggested a revision be considered.

“I think density is an important conversation we continue to have on this council,” said Councilman Rob Arlett. “I would concur that we should, and perhaps need to, look at the buildable area.”

Councilman George Cole agreed.

“My guess is a lot of it started when the wetlands weren’t important. Back then, we didn’t address wetlands,” he said. “New rules came along, but we didn’t adapt. What has happened over the years is we’ve been very generous in computing our density calculations. We’re permitting too much to be jammed in on these small parcels in our most environmentally-sensitive areas, and we’re way behind the 8-ball, I think.”

“Certainly I think the conversation is one we need to have,” added Council President Michael Vincent.

Arlett asked how land becomes classified as “wetlands.”

“A licensed soil scientist will have to go out and delineates wetlands, determines where they are on the property, and that is based on a number of different type of criteria that have been developed — not by the County, but nationally — as to what determines what wetlands are,” explained County Planning & Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell.

“What’s the goal?” asked Arlett. “Is it trying to determine a better way of calculating density, protect the environment…?”

“All of the above,” replied Cole.

Burton said he also believes the County’s buffer rules need to be reviewed as well.

“We have to look at what buffers do for us from an environmental standpoint, from a quality-of-life standpoint, from a water-quality standpoint, from a flooding standpoint. We have to say, ‘Does our current code add or subtract from those goals?’” he said.

“The inland bays and the bay... They’re just too important to our economy, to the nature we have, to the scenic views that we have, to everything that makes this county what I personally like about it. I think we should talk about that.”

During the discussion, Burton presented the council with a buffer ordinance comparison chart for New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties, as well as New Jersey and “critical areas” of Maryland.

It showed that New Castle and Kent counties have a 100-foot buffer for tidal wetlands and a 50- and 25-foot buffer for non-tidal wetlands, respectively. Sussex County has a 50-foot buffer for tidal wetlands and no buffer requirement for non-tidal wetlands.

“I can’t see how that makes sense if we’re trying to protect our waterways, protect our natural vegetation, if we’re trying to protect our landscaped areas,” Burton said. “The wetlands… We have very little buffer, and then we’re trying to take those two items and put as much as we can on that site. It just seems incorrect to me.

“I think we have to look at this with eyes wide open with our protected waterways, with our protected wetlands. We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and expect a different result. We sit here and have this concern, and then nothing changes.”

The council agreed to schedule a presentation by a soil scientist to discuss how areas are determined to be wetlands. There may be workshops on the topic at a future time.

“What I’m trying to do is maintain the rural character of this county,” said Burton. “It’s going to take some work, but I think it needs to get done.”

In other County news, with Planning & Zoning Commissioner Marty Ross retiring, Arlett nominated Holly Wingate to fill the position. Arlett said there were three individuals who had applied for the seat on the commission.

By Maria Counts
Staff Reporter