New Sussex County ordinance removes state wetlands from density equation

GEORGETOWN — With little fanfare and a minor language tweak, Sussex County Council unanimously approved an ordinance championed by councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton that removes designated state tidal wetlands from density development calculations.

“I introduced this ordinance, and like most ordinances, they’re made up of change. Change is not always welcome, but sometimes change is needed and change takes courage,” said Mr. Burton at council’s Dec. 4 meeting. “I remind council that we represent the entire county as well as our individual districts.”

Mr. Burton’s ordinance proposal initially introduced Aug. 14 removes state wetlands — not federally designated wetlands — in density calculations for lots in an AR-1 cluster subdivision, lots in ESDDOZ (Environmentally Sensitive Development District Overlay Zone) subdivisions, and lot area calculations for multi-family dwellings in all districts.

“This ordinance seeks to change the way Sussex County calculates density,” Mr. Burton said prior to council’s vote. “The way we currently calculate density is on the total acreage.

“This will not change if the site contains no state tidal wetlands. If this ordinance is passed, the density calculation on lands with state tidal wetlands will be determined after subtracting out the state tidal wetlands.”

“This ordinance looks at the county holistically. We have to ask ourselves if we are mining out the beauty and heritage of the county we all know and love,” said Mr. Burton. “Addressing the density of development in our most critically, environmentally sensitive areas is a small step to preserving and protecting our environment,” he said.

Irwin “I.G.” Burton

The ordinance became effective upon adoption by Sussex County Council.

Under the previous formula, as an example, a 100-acre parcel in AR-1 zoning would be permitted 200 total units, at two units per acre, even if the parcel included 50 acres of state wetlands.

Under the new ordinance, the 50 acres of unbuildable state wetlands will be subtracted from the density calculation, leaving 50 acres, or a maximum 100 units, not 200.

“This ordinance has been on the books since the 80s. Sussex County has changed since then, and it will continue to do so. The environment has changed and will also continue to do so,” said Mr. Burton. “I’m not sure which one is changing faster, but it is indisputably both are changing, and it is irresponsible for us to ignore these changes. Decisions such as these are difficult for us as elected officials. We are faced with deciding between quality of life and property rights. Both are equally important to me as I know they are to all you.

“This ordinance is a balance between the two. It maintains property rights while protecting the environment. The interesting thing is the environment protects our property values and we should do whatever we can to protect the environment.”

County council president Michael Vincent touched on the approved density ordinance and another ordinance proposal being pitched by Mr. Burton, which would increase buffers from 20 to 40 feet.

“We just accomplished this. I think that was step one. Step two is going to be to deal with buffers and definitions and anything else,” said Mr. Vincent.

With that, Mr. Vincent asked Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson to assemble a working group to address buffers, a group similar in concept to that which was utilized in county ordinances for roads and drainage.

Mr. Vincent’s hope is for the group to “bring back recommendations by the end of the first quarter. “

Mr. Burton added, “I would say … my 20-to-40 ordinance would be on a pause and hopefully fold it into this newly formed group. I made the statement that I would bring that to a vote with this council and I’m just going to put that on a stay right now until this group figures out what they are doing.”

Councilman Rob Arlett, who along with George Cole is leaving council after this year, addressed the matter.

“This is the second to the last meeting, so this may be the last time I have to speak of these ordinances. I think in the end to Mike’s point I think we have a very good template that we have had in this council with regard to the drainage ordinance, that working group. And I think it behooves this council of the future to respect the public and respect the process,” said Mr. Arlett.

“”I think it’s really important that we get it right in regard to process and not doing things for the sake of doing thing. I think we have got to ensure that we all stakeholders to be participating in the process because if it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.”

“I think I agree with councilman Burton that, yes, this county has changed and it will continue to change. The people that make up the county will continue to change. And the makeup of this council will continue to change,” Mr. Arlett said. “I think it is important that we have a valid template … to include these working groups. Let’s take our time. Let’s bring everybody together and have these adult conversations so we can ensure that we do get it right.”

“I take a different take on that,” said Mr. Cole. “I think that when you’re elected official and you’ve been exposed to what we have been exposed to over the years, some things are easier decisions than others.

“For a council like ours not to be able to make an adjustment from the current buffer, which is 20 feet to the recommendation 40 feet or somewhere in between, but for us to form a committee to go through the time that is involved, bringing the people and sitting around to talk about this issue, is a waste of time. We should be able to make simple decisions like this.”

“This is not that complicated. There are things out there that are complicated that have a lot of different nuances and different things. But … increasing buffers, which in my opinion benefits the quality of life here in Sussex County, and does not impact the density to the developers, is something that is very simple,” Mr. Cole said.

“I hate to see the future councils get bogged down on simple issues with forming committees because they are fearful to make a decision, without having someone to back them up.

“There are issues were committees are warranted. The billboard thing was pretty tricky. This isn’t tricky. Those are my two cents.”


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