Change process for rezoning, conditional uses

October 17, 2017

As the planning and zoning commission develops Sussex County's new comprehensive plan, it should revise the project-approval process.

Our growing population – and rising land values – have turned the process for rezonings and conditional uses into a high-stakes legal battle that favors developers over citizens.

Once preliminaries are complete, projects go first to a public hearing before the planning and zoning commission, where neighbors and others testify, usually presenting arguments against the proposals.

A few weeks later, when the project goes before county council, it has usually been revised. The developer responds to each opposing argument with a minor concession: slightly fewer units, a little wider buffer.

After marshaling its resources for the first hearing, the public may have only a few days to review the revised plan. The changes are often minor; major problems for surrounding property owners remain, most often traffic, flooding and slower emergency response.

Yet the second hearing, before Sussex council, allows the developer to state, on the record, that the new plan responds to each issue the public has raised.

Meanwhile, the commission makes a recommendation based on the original plan – a recommendation that may not even refer to the same plan council will vote on.

It's not hard to game this process. In the first hearing, ask for 20 percent more than you really want; you might get lucky and get all of it. If not, go to council with the plan you wanted in the first place. Tweak it a little to show you have heard public concerns.

If the plan is denied, take the county to court. You have established a record that shows how much you compromised, so you can say council's denial is obviously capricious and unfair.

Let's put an end to this charade.

The plan the planning commission votes on should be the same as the plan before council. Projects should have one chance to resubmit to the commission, and the public should have a fair chance to review the changes and comment. We need a new process, one that requires the commission and county council vote on the same proposal.


  • Editorials are considered by the editorial board and written by Laura Ritter, news editor, and Dennis Forney, publisher, with occasional contributions from other board members: Trish Vernon, editor; Dave Frederick, sports editor emeritus; Jen Ellingsworth, associate editor; Nick Roth, sports editor; and Chris Rausch, associate publisher.