Minorities in Sussex County could find more affordable housing following a settlement between the county and a nonprofit land trust.
Diamond State Community Land Trust President Amy Walls spoke about a recent fair housing settlement at a Sussex County League of Women Voters meeting, Jan. 21. Walls is a member of the league.
Diamond State submitted a land-use application for a housing subdivision aimed at providing affordable housing to black and Hispanic residents of Sussex County.
New Horizons proposed 50 single-family homes on a 44-acre parcel on Wootten Road, southeast of Laurel. The community would provide residents with an on-site wastewater treatment facility, a walking path into Trapp Pond State Park, a community center, a garden cooperative and playgrounds.
Walls said Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission denied the New Horizons application in July 2010. She said the commission cited a number of reasons for the denial, including that the location of the project would not have adequate access to public transportation and would have an adverse affect on surrounding property values.
Diamond State filed a lawsuit against the county and the Planning and Zoning Commission in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.
In the lawsuit, the land trust said denial of the New Horizons proposal was based partly on racial and ethnic stereotypes.
The Department of Justice announced the settlement Nov. 28, 2012. According to a Department of Justice Consent Decree, the county cannot delay the development of New Horizons and must reconsider an amended application from the developer. The county also cannot deny the new application based on any of the reasons it claimed in the initial denial, Walls said.
The decree requires the county to pay $750,000 in damages to Diamond State. Walls said Diamond State received the damages from the county’s insurance company. After legal fees were paid off, the rest of the money was set aside to fund the housing development, she said.
The county admits no fault in the settlement, Walls said; but if the county denies an application from Diamond State in the next four years, it must give detailed reasons to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The settlement also requires the county take steps to provide future affordable housing, including formulating a fair housing marketing plan to encourage future affordable developments. Also, county employees must now undergo annual training about fair housing.
Per the settlement, Walls said, the county has already adopted a Fair Housing Policy and appointed a fair housing compliance officer, who must notify HUD and DOJ of all complaints.
Aside from the settlement, the Department of Housing determined that Sussex County violated federal civil rights laws. The county entered into a Voluntary Compliance Agreement with HUD, in which it agreed to perform several corrective actions, including develop a plan to address impediments to fair housing and evaluate minority communities for future infrastructure needs.
The settlement imposes tight time frames for the county to meet the DOJ’s requirements, Walls said, and officials have already added the Fair Housing Policy to Sussex County’s official website. “The county really has to hit the ground running in this,” she said.
Stephanie Hansen, Sussex County’s attorney in the case, also attended the meeting at the Beebe Medical Arts Building in Lewes. Hansen said the area where Diamond State plans to build New Horizons is not zoned for growth. She said state agencies told Sussex County Council to deny the application because it was an inappropriate use of the land.
The county thought it was doing what the state wanted, Hansen said.
Walls said the county should hire a professional planner to analyze what developments are allowed on rural land. League member Sandra Spence agreed, noting the high cost of land in Lewes and Rehoboth. “It’s definitely a quandary,” she said.