It wasn't unanimous, but Sussex County Council has approved a rezoning request for a small lot on Hebron Road in West Rehoboth.
With a 3-2 vote at its Sept. 24 meeting, council overturned a nine-year-old conditional-use of the property and rezoned it from GR, general-residential, to B-1, neighborhood business district.
Rehoboth Appraisal Group LLC, operating as First State Appraisal Inc., is following a trend of seeking rezoning for financial reasons tied to borrowing money.
Attorney Heidi Gilmore said the conditional use for the 12,500-square-foot parcel was granted in 2004; the current owners have been at the site since 2005. “There are financing issues with conditional uses. It's much more difficult getting financing; banks don't like conditional uses anymore” she said.
She said the applicant has no plans to change the current use as an office building.
Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said there was no evidence financing was an issue. “The conditional use is more appropriate in this residential neighborhood,” Cole said.
Gilmore responded that the bank's desire for rezoned parcels is not an excuse but a reality. She said her client would not get financing if the property remained under a conditional use. “And I'm seeing this more and more,” she said. “To stay in business, they need the financing.”
“Court cases show that you have to demonstrate need. You've presented a good case to keep the conditional use. There is no change proposed. Why would we change it?” Cole asked.
Gilmore said the parcel was too small for many uses permitted under B-1 zoning. “Their intent is to keep this as professional offices. It's an ideal location in accordance with the county's comprehensive land-use plan. We are not asking for CR-1 because it's too much out of character with the area; B-1 is a natural fit,” Gilmore said. “
“Residents are concerned about commercial uses in the area. We are trying to protect West Rehoboth and keep its residential look. This site could now change to retail; it sets a precedent for that side of the road,” Cole said. “A lot of public resources have been invested to keep that community intact. Once we change it – once we ring the bell, it can't be unrung.”
Most of the other side of Hebron Road, a main connector road from Route 1 to West Rehoboth, is zoned commercial.
Gilmore said she shares Cole's concern to preserve West Rehoboth, saying she agreed that remaining properties in the area should be retained under GR zoning. She said this parcel is isolated from the residential area and is consistent with other commercial uses on that section of Hebron Road.
Planning and zoning commissioners recommended approval of the application. Three councilmembers, Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, agreed with the commission's findings and voted for the rezoning. Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Cole voted against it.
Phillips said B-1 was an appropriate transitional zoning for the community. “And some courts are starting to challenge conditional uses,” he said.
“I understand some of the concerns, but the size of the property dictates that a lot of the uses in B-1 can't be there,” Vincent said.
Deaver said the West Rehoboth community is under development pressure. “The current conditional use is more compatible with the neighborhood. I don't see a need to change it,” she said.
First State Appraisal Group and an architect are in the two-story office built in a residential style. Gilmore said B-1 zoning is in harmony with the surrounding area. “Professional offices are desired in that area,” she said.