Council Considers Townhouse Proposal


Jun 17, 2004, 17:10

Claiming his plans for a controversial three-unit townhouse between Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach "have been blown way out of proportion," James Gibson defended the project before Sussex County Council on Tuesday, June 8, 2004.

Gibson and his wife are seeking a conditional use permit to place three townhouse units on a one-third acre lot on Pine Lane on the banks of Lake Comegys. The site is in a small sliver of unincorporated land between Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach. It is in a neighborhood of townhomes, condominiums and single-family homes between Silver Lake and Route 1.

During a two-hour public hearing, an attorney representing opponents of the project told the council Gibsonís presentation was merely a continuation of "a pattern of deceipt." David Weidman of Hudson, Jones, Jaywork and Fisher, said Gibsonís project is motivated by greed. Weidman quoted an e-mail in which Gibson purportedly said he intended to sell the property to Bancroft Construction, a large builder based in Wilmington. "This property is being developed to be flipped," Weidman said.

Opponents -- many of whom own units in the Lake Comegys condominiums next to the Gibson property -- have objected to the size of the project -- three stories with 9,600 total square feet of living space, not including garages. The lot size is about one-third acre.

Weidman urged the council to reject the Gibsonsí request because the request does not comply with at least two requirements of conditional uses -- that they be a semi-public or public use, and that they do not harm their neighbors. "Where is the public good here?" Weidman asked. "These are half-million dollar homes for people...with no ties to this community."

Weidman added that the neighboring properties "will suffer greatly" because of the structure planned by the Gibsons.

Owners of the Lake Comegys townhomes told the council their view of the lake would be hampered by the Gibsonís project, which will come within about 15 feet of the lake, and ten feet of the side property lines, and will be about 20 feet taller than the older units.

One neighbor, Ernie Sandow, whose home sits across the street from the Gibson property, said he is concerned about the effect drainage from the the townhomes and the required nine parking spaces will have on his property.

Sando said he bought his home in 1995, drawn to the "charm and character of the neighborhood," and that the Gibson project "is way out of character and scale," for its location. Gibson countered claims by opponents, including the newly formed Save Our Lakes Association, that the townhouses will damage the ecology of Lake Comegys. "Itís a very nice little lake, but itís not fragile," based on his own observations, Gibson said. "I made the assessment and Iím qualified to make that assessment," he said.

Christina Phillips, who owns a townhouse at Lake Comegys, appeared at the hearing to voice her "vehement opposition" to the Gibsonís plans. She said the new townhouses will compromise the view of all the adjacent townhouses. "We will see nothing but the Berlin Wall," Phillips said. "We will be plunged into perpetual twilight."

Council member Vance Phillips pointed out that the Gibsons could, without obtaining a conditional use permit, build a single-family home bigger than the townhouse building.George Cole, however, focused on the plans to build at a density of 11 units per acre. "Donít you think itíll set a precedent?" Cole asked.

Dale Lomas, a supporter of the project, who lives around the corner on Pine Lane, said it will fit in the character of the neighborhood. "It is diversity that makes our little community so attractive," Lomas said.

Another aspect of the property -- the donation of the house formerly on the site to First State Community Action, generated some discussion. Thea Becton of First State said the initial plan was for First State to move the house to another location, but that proved too expensive. Instead, the agency, which helps low income communities throughout Sussex County, paid to have the house torn down after removing anything that could be used. Becton said 52 people benefitted from the items that were taken from the house -- including a day care facility in Rehoboth Beach that took an air conditioning unit.

But Weidman questioned why the house -- which he said was still deeded to the Gibsons -- was torn down at the expense of First State -- which receives county and state funding.

Weidman also said the proposed townhouses will be built into a state right-of-way that has never been vacated. County Attorney James Griffin said the council has no jurisdiction over that issue and that it would need to be settled in court.

The council deferred action on the Gibsonsí proposal until the Planning and Zoning Commission has made a recommendation on it.

The council also heard a conditional use request from Russell Banks for a blacktop and concrete-crushing facility on Irons Lane near Clarksville. The facility would be on 4.5 acres that have been used for several years as a dumping ground for concrete and asphalt. Although some residents favor the plan because they just want the property cleaned up, others fear it will create an environmental and traffic hazard. In April 2003, the county Planning and Zoning Commission issued a violation to Banks, ordering him to clean up the property in 30 days. Ray Barbuto, representing nine communities between Route 26 and the Indian River Bay off Irons Lane, urged the council to deny the request.

Cole remarked that it seems to be county policy "that if you apply for a conditional use, weíll permit the violation to continue."

"I think it is logical," to do so, Phillips said, particularly if a business person "makes an honest mistake." However, Phillips said, "if it appears willingly violated, the council will take note."

The council deferred a vote on the request to give Banks and his attorney time to submit new findings. The new material was due June 16, with the opposition then given until June 23 to respond to it.

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