Sky’s not the limit, but what about 60 feet?

November 12, 2013

A few years back, at the height of the real estate boom, there was an article in the Washington Post about housing developments in the metropolitan area.

As developments were planned, nearby residents often fought – in court, if necessary – to lower the housing density in the newly proposed communities.

The rallying cry: Save the trees!

These groups, highly organized and well financed, often won, forcing developers to scale back their plans. Many trees were spared the axe.

The neighborhood groups, naturally, congratulated themselves on their successful efforts to preserve the environment.

The question was, did they?

In a very limited area, perhaps. In the region, no.

Because, as the article pointed out, to the extent that the neighbors were successful in lowering the number of houses, they also hastened the day that builders would begin construction on the next development. That meant that, in the long run, more trees would be cut, more open spaces would be paved.

What first appeared to be clear-cut victories for the environment became more questionable as developers continued building to meet demand.

In Sussex County, we face similar concerns about development. One current issue is building height. Towns control height restrictions within their boundaries, but outside the municipalities the restriction was thought to be 42 feet for most buildings.

It sounds a little odd to say, “thought to be.” It’s a law, right?

Well, yes. According to the county building code, buildings are limited to 42 feet unless the buildings are “public” or “semi-public,” in which case buildings may rise to 60 feet.

The current controversy centers on the word “public.” For decades, “public” was thought to apply to schools, hospitals, government buildings, etc.

Recently, however, developers have received approval for buildings higher than 42 feet for commercial properties. Their argument: These buildings, planned for retail or hotel operations, are open to the “public.” Therefore, they are “public” buildings.

This is a ridiculous interpretation. I have no doubt that the writers of the building code meant government or quasi-government buildings and not commercial.

But that doesn’t mean I’m against taller buildings. While we obviously don’t want a line of high-rises like they have along the coast at Ocean City, there’s much to be said for allowing greater height and density, within reason.

One recently approved taller property is going up on Route 1, where an old motel was torn down across from Old Landing Road. The approval means that the developer will be able to build a larger hotel.

The issue is similar to the D.C.-area developments mentioned above. To the extent that more density is allowed on this site, more land, in the long run, will be preserved in the Cape Region.

The aesthetics issue

Another issue is aesthetics. Will the Route 1 hotel fit into the landscape? There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s a matter of taste.

But we do already have buildings higher than 42 feet. At the Vineyards on Route 9, on the right-hand side on the way to Georgetown, are two buildings designed for a mixed residential/commercial use.

To me, they are large but not overwhelming, and they are certainly attractive. I didn’t realize they didn’t conform to the supposed height restrictions until I read articles about the issue.

(After all the fuss about the height of the Hyatt Place hotel in Dewey Beach, I was surprised to see it fits in better with the surroundings than I would have thought.)

And there’s evidence that higher density can aid economic development. A recent study of Ashville, N.C., found that development within the city produced more jobs and tax revenues than a Walmart on the outskirts of town.

The Cape Region isn’t a city, so economic factors differ, but one thing is beyond dispute. A taller, larger hotel will employ more people on the same amount of land than a smaller hotel.

Here’s why that’s important. In farming, as the article noted, the key figure is the amount of crops grown per acre. The higher the yield, the more productive the land.

In economic development, the key is the number of jobs and the tax revenue per acre. The greater the number of jobs and tax revenue per acre, the more productive the land.

If we manage density wisely, we can aid economic development and preserve our open spaces. In the Cape Region, that encourages a virtuous cycle, because that’s why tourists come here – to enjoy the area’s natural beauty.

Sussex County needs to clear up confusion about height restrictions. It shouldn’t be a question whether the limit is 42 feet or 60 feet. But the higher limit makes sense.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

Welcome to The Cape Gazette Archive.
This content is provided free of charge
thanks to our sponsor:

Close ad in...

Close Ad