Error in public notice pushes back hearing on Sussex development amendment

GEORGETOWN — A public notice snafu has altered Sussex County’s hearing process on a proposed cluster ordinance amendment that has stirred debate and would impact development in the county’s coastal areas.

County Council’s public hearing on the proposed amendment, scheduled for Tuesday, was canceled due to an issue with the state-mandated public notice for a hearing held Nov. 12 before the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission.

“Unfortunately, due to a publishing error beyond the county’s control, the legal notice fell one day short of the 15-day requirement,” said Chip Guy, communications director for Sussex County. “To avoid any legal entanglements, we have opted to cancel the planned County Council public hearing in December and the concurrent consideration by the Planning & Zoning Commission.”

As a result, a new draft will be put forth and introduced, presumably some time in December, with hearings before both the Planning & Zoning Commission and County Council scheduled for early 2021, Mr. Guy said.

On Nov. 12, the Planning & Zoning Commission held a lengthy hearing on the ordinance amendment.

Currently, cluster subdivision regulations differ in AR-1 (agricultural residential) zoning from those pertaining to lands in the Coastal Area, formerly known as the Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area.

Superior design standards are not required in the Coastal Area but are in all other AR-1 districts in the county. In AR-1 districts outside the Coastal Area, superior design elements include buffers, contiguous open space and several other requirements.

To obtain cluster authorization in the Coastal Area, the only requirement of developers at present is an environmental assessment and public facility evaluation report.

Developers opting for the cluster option can construct homes on 7,500-square-foot lots instead of 20,000-square-foot lots in standard subdivisions on lands zoned AR-1.

If ultimately adopted as introduced by County Council, the amended ordinance would make standards similar countywide.

Pushing the cluster subdivision ordinance issue into 2021 means that two new council members — election winners Cindy Green (District 2) of Greenwood and Mark Schaeffer (District 3) of Lewes — will be on board, replacing Samuel Wilson Jr. and Irwin “I.G.” Burton, respectively, on Jan. 5.

Based on testimony at a May 14, 2019, hearing, the controversial yield plan component was removed from the county ordinance.

Opposed predominantly by farmers and developers, the yield plan would require that a developer/applicant show the maximum number of units possible based on a standard subdivision at 20,000-square-foot lots. Under this, the number of lots in cluster design could not exceed the number in the yield plan.

Acceptance of the cluster ordinance amendment is supported by the Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth, a nonpartisan alliance to inform, educate and engage citizens of Sussex County of the critical importance of the development, adoption and implementation of a comprehensive plan that fosters smart growth.

SARG member Jeff Stone of Milton said approval of the amendment would standardize improved design elements, as well as provide a balanced and well-planned future growth and development that reflects the county’s rural character.

“There is no logical reason to punish coastal residents by limiting quality development to areas outside the coastal zone,” Mr. Stone said.