Affordable-housing project near Laurel withdrawn

After settling federal lawsuit, land trust looks for new site
Sussex County officials have implemented a fair-housing program following a federal lawsuit. The project that triggered the suit has been withdrawn. BY RON MACARTHUR
July 3, 2014

An affordable-housing project near Laurel that prompted a federal fair-housing discrimination lawsuit against Sussex County has been withdrawn by the Diamond State Land Trust.

In a letter to the county, land trust board president Amy Walls notes that significant changes over the past five years in water, wastewater and stormwater regulations would increase the cost of the proposed 42-acre development known as New Horizons.

Walls said new Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control requirements for community wastewater treatment would drive up the cost of the proposed homes making them unaffordable.

She said lot sizes for an on-site septic system would restrict the development to 25 homes; a minimum of 35 homes are needed to keep the homes affordable, she said.

In addition, Walls said, changes would require re-engineering the site plan, adding more expense and more time before resubmitting the application to Sussex planning and zoning.

The land trust terminated its contract for the land in June 2013 and notified the county this past March.

Diamond State Land Trust had proposed to build a 50-home community in rural Laurel near Trap Pond State Park. Homes would have been sold in the $115,000 to $150,000 range with a modest lease fee charged for each lot. The homes were designed to be affordable at 1,350 square feet to 1,900 square feet.

The application was denied July 14, 2010, by the county's planning and zoning commission and then denied again Oct. 19 on appeal to county council. Sussex officials argued that county regulations require cluster subdivisions to be near town centers or in developing areas and not rural areas with no services. In addition, officials said, the project would affect property values in the surrounding area where homes averaged about 4,000 square feet in size.

Following the council denial, Diamond State Land Trust filed a lawsuit against the county stating that all county subdivision regulations had been followed. The county settled the federal fair-housing discrimination suit in November 2012 signing a consent decree with the Department of Justice and the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. The county admitted no wrong-doing and no fines were assessed.

Under the settlement, the county has a list of fair-housing activities – including annual training and a fair housing website – it must accomplish over the next four years. Under terms of the settlement, the county agreed to allow the land trust to re-submit its subdivision plans.

The county named Brandy Nauman as the county's fair-housing compliance officer. Nauman admits that complying with federal requirements can be frustrating, but the process has been a positive one. “It's been helpful and an opportunity to bring the county up to date on fair-housing issues,” she said.

The county is in the process of obtaining a consultant to collect information on 14 rural Sussex communities to obtain demographics, identify infrastructure needs and determine what services are lacking.

Walls said the land trust is actively looking for new sites.


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