Just stopped in to see what condition these conditions are in

June 29, 2011

Trying to figure out land use in Sussex County is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. To most people it makes no rhyme or reason.

Drive down Route 9 (it’s also called Route 404) between Georgetown and Lewes and you will see what I’m getting at. There is a mixture of commercial and residential and even a liquor store/bar/restaurant next to a church. It’s a perfect example of spot zoning. Although county officials dispute the use of that phrase, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, right?

The reason for the mixture is that county council routinely approves conditional-use applications to allow nonconforming uses in zoning districts – most are in AR-1 districts where the intent is for housing and farming.

County officials prefer conditional-use applications to zoning-change applications because it allows them to place conditions, or restrictions, on those applications. They say granting a zoning change opens a can of worms because any permissible use within the zoning district could eventually be built. There is always the danger of the approved use not coming to fruition. Once the land is rezoned, it stays that way, and any permitted use is fair game.

Officials have even told developers coming to them with zoning-change requests to come back with conditional-use applications. Officials have granted thousands of conditional-use applications since the 1970s. Some are for small projects, but some, like medical offices, are large.

That may change. During a recent planning and zoning commission meeting, a developer said his bank would not loan him money unless he requested a zoning change.

In a perfect world, zoning districts would be established with strict regulations that do not allow for commercial offerings in residential areas. It’s one thing to approve a one-man clock repair shop in someone’s basement; it’s another to approve a car repair shop with several employees adjacent to a residential community.

In many cases, conditional-use applications are not fair to begin with. While some business people play by the rules and rent or build their shops in commercial areas with other businesses, some look for a way to save a buck by operating out of their houses.

It shouldn’t be okay for one heating and air conditioning business to operate out of a garage in the backyard while another builds a shop or rents in a commercial area.

Conditional-use applications should be restrictive to the point that it’s hard to get one. The applications should be for cottage-type businesses with one or two person operations.

All other applicants should be told to move their business to a commercial area or look for space to rent in an established shopping center or office complex.



  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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