Sussex County Council has given developers a second reprieve by extending sunset provisions on existing projects. Approved subdivisions, residential planned communities and conditional-use projects will automatically have until until Jan. 1, 2016, to get under way. The ordinance is retroactive to Jan. 1, when a previous extension expired.
Permits for as many as 100 subdivisions, 49 conditional-use projects and 16 residential-planned- community projects were set to expire this year, said Lawrence Lank, director of county planning and zoning.
The three-year extension was recommended by the county's planning and zoning commission after a request from the Sussex County Economic Action Committee.
Speaking for the committee, Joe Conaway, a former county administrator, said the local economy is recovering, but at a slow pace. And it's not just the economy that is hampering projects. He said getting approvals and permits from state agencies holds up work. “Time is of no consequence to the state bureaucracy,” he said. “People can't get through the process in a timely fashion.”
Conaway, who spoke at two public hearings, said the ordinance would save projects that are prepared to move forward but need more time.
Lawrence Lank, director of planning and zoning, said since August 2012 his department had received 14 time-extension requests for subdivisions, three for conditional uses and one for a residential planned community. None could be granted because they fell under the automatic time extension ordinance granted by council that ended Jan. 1.
Lank also said he is aware of at least five approved subdivisions in the past few years that reverted back to farm production or farmland preservation.
Not all council members agreed with the proposal presented during the Jan. 10 meeting. Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth, who represents the fastest growing area in the county, said the three-year extension was excessive; she would back a one-year extension. “Homes in my district are being built everywhere,” she said. “This would mean plans from six, seven and eight years ago could go forward when there have been so many changes and better ways to design communities.”
She called extensions a “gift from government.”
Even though he voted for the extension proposal, Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, called the ordinance amendment smoke and mirrors. “What we have done has done nothing to help the economy, but there is a perception this will work. I still think three years is too long to continue this charade,” he said.
“We need to keep this as simple as possible. We have too much housing inventory, and we need to let the marketplace work. We need to determine how we can step back and allow the market to work,” Cole said.
Other council members agreed with those who testified in favor of the time extension. “It can help the local economy,” said Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel.
“I can't see where it hurts,” added Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford.
“Why not extend forever?” responded Deaver.
Lank answered prior to sunset provisions in 1997 that was the case. Under county code, final site-plan approvals, subdivisions and residential planned communities have five years to be substantially under way while conditional-use projects have three years to get under way.
Sussex officials had four options, as outlined by assistant county attorney Vince Robertson. Officials could no nothing; offer a blanket extension for a specified amount of time; request a written request from developers to be considered by planning and zoning; or grant all written requests. Lank said his staff would prefer to work with an ordinance that contained a dead-end date to cut down on the amount of paperwork.