For years, Sussex County has offered developers smaller lot sizes in return for “superior design” in cluster subdivisions.
But, Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton of Lewes says the problem is that superior-design standards have never been enforced because they are voluntary.
Developers were given a wide loophole when an amended superior-design ordinance was passed in 2008 that made all design requirements voluntary in cluster subdivisions. That was not the unanimous recommendation passed on to Sussex County Council by the planning and zoning commission, which had proposed making all regulations mandatory. “County council was concerned making requirements mandatory would put too much burden on applicants and chose to make them optional,” said Vince Robertson, assistant county attorney.
Now, with the introduction of an amended ordinance, Burton is making an effort to get back to the original intent of the cluster ordinance and its superior-design requirements.
One of its major incentives is 7,500-square-foot lots, instead of the minimum 20,000-square-foot lots in standard subdivisions. But in order to get smaller lots, developers are encouraged to follow superior-design standards, including 30 percent open space in one contiguous tract of land.
Burton said developers are getting smaller lots but not doing anything in return. “They are not using open space as intended.” He said the new ordinance would force developers to incorporate superior design elements in subdivisions.
Burton said not all standards can apply to every subdivision, but the ordinance would give interpretation authority to the planning and zoning commission.
Burton, who served on the planning and zoning commission for 11 years before winning the District 3 county council seat in 2016, said he has been frustrated for a long time. “I've been carrying this angry rock around in my backpack,” he said. “Creating better design is a good thing for Sussex County, but we never saw it,” he said.
Although county council introduces and would have the final vote on the amended ordinance, subdivision applicants are reviewed only by the planning and zoning commission. Nearly all subdivisions approved over the past few years have used the cluster option.
Robertson said one of the main goals of the ordinance is to preserve large tracts of open space while clustering houses together. “In reality that is not happening. Open space is fractured throughout subdivisions,” he said. “There should be more beneficial open space and not just slivers of it.”
“The proposed ordinance does not change the allowable density per acre,” Burton said. “It will, however, create community designs preserving the natural features of Sussex County.”
According to the ordinance, the 30 percent open-tract space should be beneficial to subdivision residents, include a pedestrian trail and be adjacent to an existing park, woods, farm, preserved area, waterway, wetland or other eco-sensitive parcel. The open-space border can be broken by waterways and one street.
Public hearings will be scheduled in the near future before planning and zoning commission and county council.
• 7,500-square-foot lots instead of 20,000 square-foot lots in standard subdivisions
• Open space must be beneficial to residents and adjacent to either preserved lands, wetlands, parks, waterways, farmland or woods
• A pedestrian trail is required in open space with connection provided to any other existing trails
• Sidewalks on at least one side of all streets
• Central water and sewer
• Superior design elements: 30 percent open space in one contiguous land tract; preservation of existing wetlands, waterways, wildlife corridors, farmlands and woodlands as part of design; minimum 25-foot setback from wetlands; limited removal of trees; scenic views preserved to the greatest extent possible
• Developers receive expedited review
See a copy of the existing ordinance at: sussexcountyde.gov/sites/default/files/ordinances/o2024.pdf