Sussex County Delaware

Council to Hold Hearing
on Rezoning Moratorium

Sussex County Council ...

Proposal Pits Developers
Against Residents, Officials

SC Online Publisher

GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council decided to hold a public hearing on a controversial proposal for a moratorium on rezonings in the coastal zone at its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 3, 2001.

Council voted 4-1, with Council President Dale Dukes voting no, to conduct the hearing on Wednesday, June 12, 2001, at 7 p.m. The tentative site is the CHEER Center on Sand Hill Road in Georgetown.

The Association of Coastal Towns presented its request for what it called an "interim rezoning policy" that would stop rezonings in the unincorporated areas of the coastal zone until the county's 1997 Comprehensive Land Use Plan could be revised to account for the unexpected development boom in the coastal zone that the plan's designated development districts have contributed to.

The proposal would affect only one of the county's 13 development districts, according to Dewey Beach Mayor Bob Frederick and Fenwick Island Mayor Peg Baunchalk, who made the presentation on behalf of A.C.T. and the 8 coastal town officials in the overflow crowd in council chambers.

Frederick and Baunchalk emphasized that land owners in the coastal development district would still be able to develop their land under their current zoning but would not be able to rezone AR-1 properties to MR or higher.

The rezoning moratorium would be in effect until the county revises its Comprehensive Land Use Plan next year.

"We're not here to stop growth or development," Baunchalk told council. "Developers and land owners would be free to develop their properties under zoning rights they acquired when they purchased their land.

"This is sorely needed. The rapid acceleration in growth has led to a series of critical problems -- grid lock, overflow beach parking, overcrowded evacuation routes. These problems will only intensify as the projects already approved come on line."

The proposal drew criticism from Council President Dale Dukes and Councilman Vance Phillips, support from Councilman George Cole, whose district the proposal would affect, and skepticism from Councilmen Lynn Rogers and Finley B. Jones.

As could be expected, when Dukes asked for a showing of hands in support of and opposition to the proposal, residents and town officials raised their hands in support and developers and real estate agents raised their hands against it.

Besides Baunchalk and Frederick, supporting the measure from A.C.T. were Mayor George Smith of Lewes, Mayor Sam Cooper of Rehoboth Beach, Mayor Joe McHugh of Bethany Beach, Mayor Tom Lewis of Henlopen Acres, Councilman Sal Aiello of South Bethany, and Dick Logue, the Planning & Zoning Chairman for Ocean View.

After Cole stated his support for the proposal, Dukes, Phillips and county attorney Eugene Bayard raised several questions about the fairness and legality of the ordinance and the support it had from outside the A.C.T. organization.

Bayard said the county would be amending its Comprehensive Land Use Plan and would be required to go through a regular, advertised hearing process. He said the county would also need to submit the revision to the state's cabinet committee on planning issues under the Quality of Life Act.

Cole disagreed with that assessment but agreed with suggestions to the A.C.T. representatives that they run the proposal past their solicitors for proper procedures.

Dukes, meanwhile, expressed offense at the notion that the coastal zone needs to be protected from high density rezonings by county council.

He questioned the mayors about what they had done to curb high density development within their own borders and expressed surprise that lot sizes were as small as 5,000 square feet in some coastal towns.

"That's 8 lots to the acre," said Dukes. "That's high density."

Frederick and Baunchalk both said the lot sizes were drawn up when the towns were first developed nearly 100 years ago and that the towns had no choice but to work with those sizes.

Rogers asked whether the proposal had the support of the entire Sussex County Association of Towns. Frederick and Baunchalk said because the issue was specific to the coastal zone that it was not an appropriate topic for S.C.A.T.

Council still requested, however, that A.C.T. ask for opinions from both S.C.A.T. and state legislators in the affected district.

Dukes also criticized the Town of Bethany Beach for spending $29,000 an acre to buy unbuildable land with the intent of keeping it out of the hands of developers. "We got our land for the James Farm for nothing," he said.

He then criticized Frederick for a decision his town made in the past that allowed what would amount to 34 units per acre.

"I take umbrage at those comments," said Frederick. "We can't change the ills of the past."

Phillips said he believed a rezoning moratorium would harm the integrity of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan process. "I think that should be protected," he said.

Frederick and Baunchalk both said a Comprehensive Land Use Plan is a living, breathing document that is subject to change when the need arises.

"I've never found anything written in stone except the Ten Commandments," said Baunchalk.

Cole said it was arrogant of council to make land use decisions that go against the wishes of the people directly affected and that it should support those people when they ask for help.

"In the past, county government has approved high density zonings on the borders of Rehoboth Beach," he said. "Now we get eight towns asking for our help and we shouldn't be taking potshots. Sixty percent of our (county's) tax base is in this area (coastal zone). This is where most of the growth is. We're seeing a tremendous impact here. If we had the towns from Delmar to Greenwood lining up, we'd act on this."

Phillips called Cole "the poster boy" for arrogance on issues he disagrees with but said he understood the growing pains the coastal towns are going through.

"I can feel your pain," said Phillips. "But I believe the process we have now is working just as envisioned. Next year, maybe everything you want will be in the new plan."

Phillips also said that the moratorium wouldn't be fair to developers who invested in land based on the current comprehensive land use plan.

Frederick said land owners had no guarantees that their properties would be rezoned and Cole said "we've learned a lot in the last few years and maybe our plans and assumptions need to be tightened up."

Jones also questioned the advisability of revising the plan outside of the five-year review process.

"It's an area that needs to be protected," he said, "but we have a five-year review plan and I think a large percentage of your issues will be addressed."

Baunchalk said that while she attended most of the 100 public hearings held to develop the current comprehensive land use plan, "In 1997, none of us could foresee what would happen in just four years. We as human beings should have the ability to address problems without waiting five years. I think your plan gives you that ability."

Phillips then asked if anyone in the audience wanted to speak in opposition to the proposal and although it was not a public hearing, Dukes allowed attorney Jim Fuqua, who represents clients who have projects underway in the coastal zone, to address the council.

Fuqua said he believed the moratorium would be illegal because it would take away the rights land purchasers thought they were buying under the comprehensive land use plan.

"The bottom line is the moratorium is unfair," he said. "I have clients who in the past year have done traffic studies, sewer studies, environmental impact studies, and they based those studies under the rules you put into effect (with the comprehensive land use plan). To pull the rug out from under them is not fair. To have one group come in and say 'Stop' is unfair."

Dukes then urged the towns to annex properties on their borders if they were unhappy with council's land use decisions.

"Rezonings are the worst thing we have to do," he said. "I'd love to get out of them."

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