Sussex County officials have made no final decision on a proposal to change the county's building height limit ordinance, but they have agreed to debate the issue during a rare workshop session.
Within the next six weeks, council members will sit down with the planning and zoning commission, board of adjustment and state transportation officials.
County council has not voted on the proposed ordinance, but the planning and zoning commission supports it, and recommended the workshop.
Building height has long been limited to 42 feet in the county's unincorporated areas. However, wording in county code permits “semi-public” or “public buildings” to exceed that height, up to 60 feet tall. The definition of semi-public has recently been questioned, leaving county officials up in the air.
The proposed ordinance would remove those words. Only government buildings, hospitals, institutions and schools could be built to 60 feet, when permitted in a specific zoning district. Churches and temples could be constructed as high as 75 feet.
Under a legal interpretation of the current ordinance, buildings – such as hotels or apartments – with retail shops or offices open to the public can be constructed as tall as 60 feet.
At its Jan. 28 meeting, council voted 4-1 to defer on a vote on the new height ordinance and approved a motion to hold a workshop.
Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, voted against the recommendation saying it was time to take a vote and move forward.
Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said Sussex County has restricted high-rise development – particularly in unincorporated areas near resort towns – which helps has kept the area more attractive than other areas. “I think 42 feet is in our best interest; it's why people come here,” Cole said. “This is a quality of life issue; we don't want to kill the golden goose.”
It was Cole who brought the matter to council's attention last fall.
Cole said he was caught off guard when he found site plans had been approved by the planning and zoning commission for buildings as tall as 60 feet. A hotel under construction and another planned for the Route 1 corridor will be constructed at 60 feet. Two mixed-use buildings already constructed in the Vineyards project near Lewes, also exceed 42 feet.
“This was news to county council, news to planning and zoning and news to the public that this [42 feet] wasn't the rule of the land,” Cole said last fall.
Cole said key points to debate include appropriate locations in the county for high-rise buildings and just how tall those buildings can be considering infrastructure that is available.