Building height issue deserves focus

October 11, 2013

The issue of whether Sussex County will allow its long-recognized 42­foot height limit rise to 60 feet as a result of a legal interpretation is starting to get the attention it deserves.

A few weeks ago Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Lawrence Lank said that if the county is going to allow most of its non­residential buildings to rise to 60 feet instead of 42 feet, he would like to see that change handled as a matter of policy rather than as a result of a legal interpretation.

The legal interpretation involves a short section in the building regulations section of Sussex County’s zoning code: “. . . public and semi-public or public service buildings, hos­pitals, institutions or schools, when permitted in a district, may be erected to a height not exceeding 60 feet.”

From a grammatical point of view, the question is whether the commas around the “hospitals, institutions or schools” phrase make that a defining phrase for the preced­ing “public and semi-public or public service buildings” phrase. If that is the case – which most people would say is what was probably originally intended – then the 60-foot height allowance refers only to hospitals, institutions or schools.

That doesn’t accord with the current legal interpretation that rules broadly that the sec­tion indicates any building with any kind of public or semi-public use – meaning any kind of building open for public commerce – can be built to 60 feet. The interpretation has es­sentially changed the building height limit in Sussex from 42 feet to 60 feet.

Sussex Councilman George Cole brought the issue to the forefront at this week’s Sussex Council meeting. He rightly questioned this significant increase in height limit without public discussion, and suggested a morato­rium on the issuance of any more building permits at the 60-foot level until the council can take a closer look.

Totally sensible. Sussex may ultimately decide there is benefit to increasing the height limit, but that decision should come only after a full public airing allows the collective wis­dom of the county’s residents to weigh in.

  • Cape Gazette editorials are considered and written by members of the Cape Gazette editorial board which includes Dennis Forney, publisher; Trish Vernon, editor; Dave Frederick, sports editor emeritus; Laura Ritter, news editor; Jen Ellingsworth, associate editor; and Nick Roth, sports editor.

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