Sussex: New housing density calculation proposed

GEORGETOWN — A Sussex County councilman’s pitch to remove designated state wetlands from the equation to calculate density for development has stirred a wave of debate.

Since county zoning was established in Sussex nearly five decades ago, total acreage — including wetlands that are unbuildable — is calculated in computing density of residential-zoned districts. Typically, under county AR-1 zoning, two building units are permitted per acre.

Introduced by Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton Aug. 14, the proposed ordinance would only remove state or tidal wetlands — not federally designated wetlands — in density calculations for lots in an AR-1 cluster subdivision, lots in Environmentally Sensitive Development District Overlay Zone (ESDDOZ) subdivisions, and lot area calculations for multi-family dwellings in all districts.

“The way we currently calculate density on the entire parcel, whether that is two units, four units, it is the entire parcel,” said Mr. Burton. “This ordinance would subtract out the state tidal wetlands from the calculation. It doesn’t refer to federal wetlands. It doesn’t refer to isolated wetlands. It’s tidal wetlands.”

Mr. Burton noted the density issue has been in the last two comprehensive land-use plans and is in the current comprehensive plan that is in draft.

“It’s been on the minds of this county for a long period of time,” he said. “I just felt it was time to bring it forward for discussion and a public hearing … and here we are.”

Equity, property rights, environmental impact and sprawl were among the numerous focal points presented by more than a dozen people who voiced comment during the public hearing at county council’s Oct. 9 meeting.

Leading off was Mike Johnson, who served on the county’s planning and zoning commission for 11½ years. He favors adopting the ordinance.

“I don’t see this as an issue of takeaway. I see this as an issue as common sense. And common sense says you cannot build on wetlands,” said Mr. Johnson. “If we continue allowing wetlands to be used as part of density calculation, and the more well known that becomes, that is just going to invite more abuse.

“Council needs to stand up and say that we need to continue to protect our environment. We need to protect the way of life that we know it.”

James Baxter IV of Baxter Farms Inc. of Georgetown has an opposing view: He said the ordinance will negatively impact one of Sussex County’s top two industries — agriculture.

“My land is my asset. My land is my equity. The value or worth of that parcel of property is not defined by the fact that you say it is wetlands and that it’s quote/unquote ‘worthless.’ It’s more defined by what the bank says that that parcel of land is worth,” said Mr. Baxter.

“When I go to a bank, I need line of credit. Because 2018 is going is probably to be one of the worst years in farming history, point blank. And I’ll go on record saying that. There will be farmers going broke in 2018.”

Jim Erikson, a professional civil engineer, said he believes the ordinance will create additional problems.

Sussex County Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton, left, explains the reasoning behind his proposed ordinance.

“What happens when the demand for this area exceeds the density allowed? They go to the next closest thing, the next best thing. And what you end up with is sprawl. This ordinance can potentially lower density, thus creating additional sprawl,” said Mr. Erikson.

Michelle Schmidt spoke on behalf of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.

“The ordinance would prevent a concentration of density near ecologically sensitive wetlands and waterways such as those of the Inland Bays and reduce the exposure of future county residents and their property to flooding,” she said.

“Wetlands are essential for the fish and wildlife population of the Inland Bays. By reducing density near these sensitive areas, the potential for human disturbance of their important wildlife habitat is decreased.

“Wetlands and their beneficial function in the Inland Bays Watershed have declined greatly over time and are overall in poor condition due to the disturbances of development.”

After two-plus hours of testimony at its Oct. 9 meeting, county council closed the public hearing but left open the record for 30 days to accept written comment.

“I’d love to hear from DNREC,” said Councilman Rob Arlett, noting the great deal of testimony about environment. “DNREC is charged to protect these areas and they are not on record. They are not chiming in on this and I think they should.”

Mr. Arlett questioned Mr. Burton on the intent of the ordinance.

“Is the goal of the ordinance to reduce building? Is the goal of the ordinance to ensure that our environment is protected and safeguarded?” said Mr. Arlett.

“The goal,” Mr. Burton replied, “is to do all of the above. To be able to calculate density on land that you can’t build on just never makes sense.

“The goal is not necessarily to decrease the housing but to properly calculate the way in which density is defined. The benefit of doing it that way lends to a better environment around those communities.”

In Kent County, calculations mirror those of neighboring Sussex County.

“We do calculate it based on growth,” said Kent County Planning Director Sarah Keifer. “Our code since 2003 has said you cannot subdivide wetlands. We prohibit development on all wetlands.”

Rick Lardner, speaking on behalf of Delaware Chapter of American Council of Engineering Communities, opposed the proposal, saying it promotes sprawl, will harm the farming community and negatively affect the environment.

He said he reviewed other counties’ approaches and found that while Kent and Sussex are similar, New Castle County uses both a gross density and net density approach.

Sussex Councilman George Cole, a longtime proponent of lower density, shared some of his thoughts of growth and development and balancing the number of residents anticipated to move to the area with the landscape.

“I don’t really feel I have an obligation to whoever these 20,000, 30,000 people are that we have to accommodate them. I think we can accommodate them as they come, and the market may change and they may not come,” said Mr. Cole. “We can’t let those things dictate how we want our quality of life to be here in Sussex County.

“And right now, there is a lot of people, newly arriving and a lot of people who have lived here their entire lives that are fed up with what is going on — too much density, too much everything. And more is not better. Less is better. It’s higher quality and higher property values in Sussex county, which I think is in our best interest as opposed to places like Ocean City.”

“We need to as a county council to say our wetlands are valuable, open space is valuable. And we should cherish it like they do in many other communities and try to protect it … and not worry about 20,000, 30,000 people that I don’t know who those people are. They may not come,” added Mr. Cole. “And if they don’t come it’s fine with me.”

More public comment

Ordinance support was voiced by Lisa Wool, executive director of the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, and Milton resident Jeff Stone of Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth, SARG.

“We feel that this ordinance is important to protecting that investment (rivers and streams) as well,” said Ms. Wool. “We want to make sure that this is done correctly and that the needs of the farmer are taken into account.

“We really want to protect the culture of this area, the farm community, the waterways. I think it is important to look at this a long-term, good financial choice.”

Mr. Stone said the proposed changes to buffers and density calculations are consistent with the new comp plan.

“The die is cast. As Mr. Burton pointed out it has been 20 years or more that have talked about this. It is time now that the county moves forward on it,” said Mr. Stone, stating that 68 percent of people responding the county’s survey during the comp plan process ranked conservation and land use as two of top three issues of major concern.

“It is time for Sussex County to adopt these best practices, in reducing density and development while protecting precious natural resources for current and future generations. Sussex County is the most environmentally and arguably the most environmentally valuable location in the state.

“It is incumbent on the county to protect those resources. It is what makes Sussex … Sussex. Now is the time to change the paradigm by adopting these ordinances to protect the environment, reduce harmful density and significantly improve the quality of life for residents current and future.”

Robert Tunnell said he believes the ordinance proposal is off base. He noted the wetlands definition was adopted 30 years ago and times – and many wetland areas – have since changed.

“So, we are dealing with a static wetlands definition and static set of maps from DNREC in 1988. Those wetlands line have changed. I think there is a lot of detail in this ordinance that doesn’t quite make sense. I think for a number of reasons as written this ordinance does not work,” Mr. Tunnell said.

Lewes resident Ric Moore, president of Delaware Interfaith Power and Light, a group with fundamental concerns regarding climate, spoke about global warming, equity and justice and property rights and community rights.

“We need to be protecting farm land and farmers as much as everything else,” said Mr. Moore “This part of the state was rural. Why are we trying to turn it into an urban metropolis which will in fact destroy the greatest resource we have — whether it is the bay, the land or the quality of life of the people who are fortunate enough to live here. We have to find ways to protect the interests of everyone who is here.”


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