Sussex council starts comprehensive plan workshops

Buffers, density, zoning, tree preservation, infrastructure among issues
December 12, 2017

Sussex County Council is now working directly on the 2018 comprehensive plan.

Councilmen have expressed interest in several major topics including a re-evaluation of AR-1 zoning, buffers, the size of growth districts, affordable housing and tools to pay for infrastructure.

For more than a year, consultants and the county's planning and zoning commission have worked to write a draft of the plan. Commissioners held 22 workshops, three rounds of public meetings in 11 locations, and 32 regular planning and zoning meetings. Comments from the hearing and the more than 300-page draft are now in the hands of council.

“The plan reflects all of that input,” said consultant John Mullen of McCormick Taylor at the start of a Dec. 6 council workshop.

The final draft must be approved by council before June 30, 2018.

Council had its first in a series of workshops on Dec. 6; another is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 13, in the county administration building, 2 The Circle, Georgetown.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, who is the only councilman with experience writing a comprehensive plan, said there was little commitment from past councils to implement plans. “This council is more willing to take some bold steps. At least I hope so,” he said.

Cole has served on council since 1986.

He said county officials can't control everything. “But what we can control, we should take seriously this time around,” he said.

Cole was outspoken on what he would like to see in the 2018 plan.

He said creation of an agriculture district is paramount. “We need to secure agriculture in the county. The current AR-1 zoning does nothing to preserve or protect our agricultural base,” he said.

He said the county's base AR-1 zoning, which permits construction of two units per acre, is among the most liberal in the region. Most land in the county is AR-1 designation.

In addition, he said, changes are needed to the county's environmentally sensitive development district overlay zone, which includes most of coastal Sussex. “It's a joke. You can do whatever you want,” he said. “It needs to be tightened up.”

Cole said the county should stop looking for ways to promote affordable housing in the resort area. “You will never see affordable housing in the coastal area. It doesn't make sense to developers,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, consultants met with individual councilmen to get their comments and suggestions for the plan. Among issues raised were:

• Buffers along roads, wetlands, and between subdivisions and new development

• Density guidelines

• Re-evaluation of AR-1 zoning and consideration of an agriculture district

• Ree-valuate the size of growth districts on current future land-use maps

• Roadway and other infrastructure capacity and how it shapes future growth

• Tools to pay for infrastructure improvements

• Using community design to to help shape growth and determine where it occurs

• Protection of trees

• Affordable housing.

Debate continues on seasonal population

As they developed a draft of the 2018 plan, planning and zoning commissioners wanted – for the first time – seasonal population data for a better picture of the county's population and more refined data to write the plan.

Mullen said about one-third of the population is seasonal, which includes second homes only and not day-trippers, rentals or campgrounds. In 2010, nearly 95,000 people were considered seasonal residents out of a total population of just over 310,000.

Cole asked if the current seasonal population number was a true indication because as many as 5 million people visit Sussex County each year.

Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell said the Delaware Population Consortium is working to gather more data to provide a more accurate number of seasonal population. She said by state law the county has to use data provided by the consortium in its comprehensive plan.

“The numbers will be refined as years progress,” she said.

Cornwell said the seasonal population number was increased by 15 percent. “It's the first time the consortium and county have looked at seasonal numbers,” she said.

“It's not a true indicator, but it's the number we have to work with,” Cole said.

During his presentation on demographics and population, Ed Ratledge of the University of Delaware said the consortium is actively determining the number of day trippers and the number of hotel rooms and campground lots in the state to get a more accurate seasonal population estimate. “Next year we should have a good handle on day-trippers and rentals,” he said.