Wetlands clarified in amended proposal targeting density calculation

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton has Tuesday, Nov. 27, circled on the calendar.

With clarifying amendments in place, that is the day he hopes council colleagues will support an amended ordinance that would remove designated state wetlands from the equation in determining development density.

“This ordinance has generated a lot of public input in the forms of public speaking, emails, letters, editorials and overall general comments. This will be a big change,” said Mr. Burton. “However, this ordinance is not new to Sussex County. It has been mentioned in the last two comprehensive land-use plans and it is currently mentioned in the latest draft of the comprehensive land-use plan. This thing has been on the horizon for a while. So, it’s clear to me that action was needed, and I believe that action is needed now.”

“What has become equally clear to me with the introduction of this ordinance is the confusion as to the definitions as to what is calculated in the density, and more importantly what is not calculated in the density calculation,” Mr. Burton added. “Most of opposition that we heard, it was never the intent of the ordinance. So that led me to believe there was confusion. This ought to clear it up for us.”

Irwin “I.G.” Burton

“What that will do with those amendments, it will make it clear to everybody what exactly we are talking about. Again, there was confusion with old definitions in our code,” said Sussex County Assistant Attorney Vince Robertson, council’s legal liaison with planning/ zoning.

The amended ordinance was to go before the county’s planning and zoning commission Thursday.

Some concerns voiced at the Oct. 9 public hearing before council were from farmers fearful their property value would decrease. Among those was James Baxter IV of Baxter Farms Inc. of Georgetown, who said the initial ordinance proposal would negatively impact one of Sussex County’s top two industries – agriculture.

“My land is my asset. My land is my equity,” said Mr. Baxter. “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. 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.”

The amended ordinance, Mr. Robertson said, specifically spells out that farmers will not be penalized in density calculation for having an ag ditch to help with drainage or a farm pond on their property.

“This exclusion shall not include farm ponds, tax ditches or other man-made bodies of water where these waters are not located on or within … streams,” said Mr. Robertson. “That makes it clear that if you put in an ag ditch on your farm … it is not a stream. It can be counted towards density.”

Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. said, “As far as a lot of farmers concerns and ag concerns about ditches, isolated wetlands … this (amended draft) is trying to make sure that it is very clear that these items are not included in that and affected by this.”

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

Mr. Burton’s ordinance proposal introduced Aug. 14 would only remove state or tidal 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.

“Currently, we use wetlands in the density calculation,” said council President Michael Vincent. “I am concerned if I am going to vote on something that devalues somebody’s property. That concerns me.”

“It was never the intent of the ordinance to devalue all of this farmland,” said Mr. Burton.

Councilman George Cole, a longtime supporter of less density, said land value is heavily dependent on location, available infrastructure, location on the land-use map and levels of service. “More units, roads, parking, it is not environmentally sensitive. The importance of wetlands is fairly common knowledge. Even the elementary school kids know this,” said Mr. Cole. “This county, we have done nothing to protect.”

“George just made the statement this is in reference to preserving or protecting the wetlands. Well, I will disagree,” said county councilman Rob Arlett. “It is about reducing the number of homes permitted on a property. It has nothing to do with protecting the wetlands. That is called a buffer. Am I wrong on that?”

“I think you are blatantly wrong,” said Mr. Burton.

“Then, further explain,” said Mr. Arlett.

Mr. Burton rationalized that if you put 200 homes on a 100-acre piece of property, “you are affecting that environment by putting 200 homes as opposed to putting 170. The impact of the 30 homes impacts the environment. It’s the amount of space you are going take up on that piece of land.

“If you get a gross calculation of the total amount of land and get to include the wetlands in it, you are then taking that number and putting it on the upland. So, by increasing the density in the environmentally sensitive tidal wetlands area you are essentially affecting the environment of the area,” said Mr. Burton. “You can’t think that 200 homes don’t have a greater impact on the environment than something less.”

In general, the county has eliminated reference to state code.

Mr. Burton made note of a presentation in public commentary by Rich Barasso, representing SARG (Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth), who addressed wetlands. Mr. Barasso said that of Sussex County’s total 760,000 acres, DNREC estimates that there are only 27,000 acres – less than 3 percent of the land – designated as state wetlands, which are primarily in coastal area east of US 113.

“What is the affect that this is going to have on Sussex county as we know it today? I don’t think it is going to have much of an effect. But every little bit helps,” said Mr. Burton. “When you say that there is less than three percent of the total acreage of Sussex County will fall into these definitions, and then you’ve got to say, ‘Well, how much of that is already developed? How much of that is in ag preservation?’ I think the number gets down into less than one percent that will be the affected lands of this ordinance because of its definitions of state tidal wetlands. Now, let’s try and protect what we have.”


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