Coalition offers quick course on Sussex government

Former county officials I.G. Burton and Kim Hoey Stevenson provide teachable moments
September 19, 2023

The Sussex Preservation Coalition offered a Sussex County government education program during its Sept. 12 meeting at Delaware State Police Troop 7 near Lewes.

Irwin “I.G.” Burton, a former county councilman for four years and planning & zoning commissioner for 11 years, and Kim Hoey Stevenson, who served as a planning & zoning commissioner for six years, answered questions about how council and the commission operate from moderator Jill Hicks, vice president, and a large crowd.

Hoey Stevenson attended the meeting via Zoom.

The session covered everything from how to become an official to contacting county leaders to how changes in ordinances are made.

County council and the commission vote on rezoning and conditional-use applications after two public hearings, but only the commission votes on subdivision applications following one hearing.

Preliminary site plans for subdivisions are acted on first followed by a final site that must list all the conditions imposed by the commission. Public comment is not accepted during final site-plan reviews.

Subdivision approvals can be appealed to county council, while council decisions can be appealed to Chancery Court.

Council members are elected; commissioner members are appointed.

“It's a wakeup call to people because they don't understand that the commission only acts on subdivision applications, because the projects are by right at two units per acre if they follow the ordinances. Planning & zoning deals with about 80% of all applications,” Burton said.

President Jane Gruenebaum updated the group on the coalition, which now has 1,600 members, as well as some pending applications and the upcoming workshop.

She urged everyone to attend the Thursday, Sept. 21 council-commission workshop at the county's Emergency Operations Center at Delaware Coastal Airport. While public comments will not be accepted at the workshop, the public can send emails and letters to council and commission members, she said.

Public participation

Burton said it's critical the public pay attention to applications and testify at hearings.

“Saying that you don't like something is not grounds to dismiss it. You have to base your comments on the record and code issues,” he said.

Burton also said public comments are accepted via email or in writing prior to public hearings by sending them to the planning & zoning office. Those comments become part of the public record.

Once the record is closed, no more comments are accepted.

On subdivision applications, Burton said it's possible that applicants could present different information to county council based on comments made at the planning & zoning commission hearing.

“It's always better if you come to the hearings,” he said.

“Give us something to work with,” Hoey Stevenson said. “We want to make the best plans we can, and we do have some latitude when approving a plan. We must follow the code, but we can use our discretion in some areas.”

She said the commission can add conditions based on public input regarding some aspects of a site plan.

“You have to vote on what's on the public record presented during the application process,” Burton said. “You can't vote on opinions or comments you may hear after a hearing. And we all have to give reasons for our votes on the record.”

Council and commission members are not permitted to talk outside council chambers about pending applications.

When asked how to change an ordinance, Burton said residents have to find a member of county council to champion the change, then the member has to get two other council members to agree.

“It takes three votes to get anything done,” he said.

Hoey Stevenson said council members and commissioners have to be very careful to keep everything in the open.

“We can meet with groups to talk about general topics, but we can't talk about a specific application,” she said.

That's why Sussex County Councilman Mark Schaffer, who attended the meeting, left the room when the coalition discussed a pending application concerning a marina and restaurant at Osprey Point on Old Landing Road near Rehoboth Beach.

“Being on council is rewarding because I was able to help a lot of people,” Burton said. “But it was also a completely different learning experience for me.”

Burton was elected in 2016, but was defeated in a Republican primary in 2020 by Schaeffer. Burton was appointed to the planning & zoning commission in 2005 and served until he was elected to council.

Hoey Stevenson was appointed to her seat on the commission by Burton in 2017 and served until last year.

A balancing act

Property rights was another issue that surfaced.

Burton said developers and landowners have to follow the code, and there are property rights built into it.

“Are the codes reflective of the new environment we are living in?” he asked. “We are all looking for solutions on how to develop and still conserve.”

“We try to find a balance with everything,” Hoey Stevenson added.

She said commissioners have to consider that selling farmland is many farmers’ retirement.

“Then we have developers and people who come here. We have to balance that with safety, the environment and everyone's rights,” she said.

Transportation issues

Gail Van Gilder of Lewes said infrastructure is a lot of the essence of what problems there are. She said the Delaware Department of Transportation’s input on applications is not until the end of the land-use process.

“A memorandum of understanding gives council the right to work with DelDOT early in the process and have a seat at the table when transportation planning is taking place,” she said, adding she's not sure whether council takes full advantage of that option.

Hoey Stevenson said county officials can provide DelDOT officials with road improvements they think are important and can set priorities.

The county has a Funding Accelerating Safety in Transportation Track memorandum of understanding with DelDOT. Council can allocate funds to DelDOT to do road improvement projects that are scheduled well into the future.

In 2020, council provided $4.5 million to FAST Track intersection improvements at the Cave Neck, Hudson and Sweetbriar roads intersection four years ahead of its scheduled date in the DelDOT Capital Transportation Program.

Some interim improvements have been made, but construction has not started on major upgrades to the intersections, which could include a roundabout.

At the end of the meeting, Schaeffer presented Hoey Stevenson with a county council proclamation for her six years of service on the planning & zoning commission.


Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter