Ruddertowne Supreme Court decision analyzed

June 13, 2013

The Delaware Supreme Court set aside well-established Delaware law to squeeze a square peg into a round hole to protect the developer of a huge project in Dewey Beach at Ruddertowne, and in the process will cause confusion in land-use law for years to come.


Developer lawyers will have a field day manipulating “words” to achieve their ends and citizens have lost their ability to rely on the clearly written laws of this state for fairness and due process.


The Delaware Supreme Court blessed the use of a “resolution” even though the law requires use of an “ordinance” in order to be subject to a 60-day limit within which citizens must challenge a government zoning decision. On this thin reed it dismissed a challenge by Dewey Beach property owners to construction of a huge project that violates Dewey Beach zoning laws.


Even though this Delaware law references an ordinance and not a resolution, the court proclaimed that, “…the name give to a document that amends a town’s zoning regulations is immaterial.”


This is a remarkable decision. If the words in the statute have no meaning, what is the purpose of the statute? The Supreme Court has undercut the ability of citizens in Delaware to rely on the plain language of the law for procedural protections.


Now developers statewide can evade well-established land use law on which the public relies to challenge major developments in their communities, and can ramrod new developments through the approval process even when they violate the town zoning laws.


In addition, the citizens of Dewey Beach were denied the ability to challenge the development with a referendum because the town passed a resolution instead of an ordinance - purposefully to avoid a referendum which can only be used to challenge an ordinance.


Is the Supreme Court now saying that the citizens of Dewey Beach can now file a referendum challenging this project because the words in the statute requiring an ordinance are “immaterial?”


Joan Claybrook

Dewey Beach



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