Sussex clarifies building-height limit

To exceed 42 feet, a variance is required in most districts
May 12, 2014

Sixty is not the new 42 when it comes to building height in Sussex County.

In a move to clarify language in its height ordinance, Sussex County Council voted 4-0 to remove a section that allowed for public or semi-public buildings to be constructed up to 60 feet tall, well beyond the established 42-foot limit in most zoning districts.

“There has been some confusion about this, and this action codifies it,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “The wording was poor.”

It was Cole who brought up the issue more than six months ago after he learned that developers were exceeding what he thought was the historical building-height limit of 42 feet. A clause in the code – which Cole called a loophole – allowed for buildings to exceed 42 feet as long they provided some access to the public. Over the past few years, the county approved a 52-foot hotel on Route 1 and a mixed-use, 60-foot apartment-retail complex along Route 9 under the old regulations.

“It was never intended to be that way,” Cole said. “It was for schools and government buildings.”

The updated ordinance only allows government buildings, hospitals and schools to be built to a maximum height of 60 feet when those structures are permitted in the zoning district where they are to be built. Churches are not affected by the new ordinance.

The amended ordinance takes affect as of May 6 but does not apply to buildings that have a valid building permit prior to that date.

The ordinance does not negate the variance process through the county's board of adjustment. “Building height can be appealed on a case-by-case basis,” said Lawrence Lank, the county's director of planning and zoning, adding several hotels in the county have had successful variance applications. In the Cape Region, Heritage Inn – 45 feet – and Hampton Inn – 48 feet – were granted height variances in 1999.

“This way it's not carved in stone,” said Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach.

“This change will not upset anything,” Cole said. “It's a small ripple of an impact on county land-use decisions.”

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