Lawson: Property rights a priority in development

Sussex subdivision issues, including forest preservation, dominate coalition meeting with county administrator
March 21, 2023

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson spent most of his presentation time answering questions during the Sussex Preservation Coalition's March 14 meeting at the Lewes library.

As Lawson outlined Sussex County Council priorities, questions arose pertaining to subdivision standards, and in particular forest preservation and perimeter buffers.

Lawson, who has been administrator since 2012, said that forest preservation is among the priorities expressed by council.

He said clear-cutting parcels is not a violation in county code. “In Sussex County, a property owner has the right to cut down trees if its 2 acres or 200 acres,” Lawson said. “That's something we need to take a look at.”

Several coalition members brought up the recent video presented by member Jill Hicks showing a perimeter buffer being clear-cut adjacent to her Chapel Green community.

“What you saw was being done before the final site plan was approved,” Lawson said. “When the plan is approved, developers have to operate under those parameters.”

“Is that a loophole? I would have to say yes,” he added.

Lawson said no rules were broken by cutting trees down to the property line. “However, it's no one's intent that all trees are knocked down and replanted with saplings that they hope will grow,” he said.

One member asked if that's not the intent, how can it be made clearer.

“It is happening as a priority. We hear the outrage from the public on perimeter buffers. What we see out in the field is not what county council wants to see,” he said.

Lawson said finding a solution will take time because of the complexity of the issue. “The state rules where runoff water can and can't go. If you talk to engineers, they will tell you the best way to site grade to drain water is to knock down trees,” he said.

He said Kent County has forest preservation in its code, which could provide guidelines for Sussex County. “It's complicated. Property rights is the No. 1 tenant in Sussex County,” he said. “We have to consider property rights and make sure all voices are heard.”

Some attendees were critical of the county's inaction on forest preservation.

“We weren't even talking about trees last year,” Lawson said. “We are moving the ball. Now it's a priority. The legislative process plays out in certain ways. It depends on elected officials,” he said.

One member suggested that the county consider an ordinance to compensate landowners to maintain mature trees.

“There is nothing to stop clear-cutting before a property is sold to be developed,” Lawson said.

Other priorities include another look at open space calculations, buffers and superior design standards for cluster subdivisions.

Development road funding

Lawson said another priority council will explore is the Delaware Department of Transportation funding process involving development.

“Is the development community paying enough? That's a conversation we are having,” he said.

Under the current process, developers are required to make road improvements along the frontage of their projects, which can include travel-lane widening and shoulders, an entrance and turn lanes.

Depending on the scale of the project, DelDOT also requires developers to pay portions of off-site road improvements.

“Frontage improvements are the only ones you see, but is this enough?” Lawson asked. “Should they spend more money to extend those improvements beyond the frontage?”

Lawson said most times developer's contributions and road improvements lag behind the development.

He used Robinsonville Road, where three new subdivisions are currently under construction, as an example. The road in front of the projects is improved but other sections in between are not.

“We are thinking they should improve all of the road,” he said. “We can't look at this with blinders. The whole system needs to be analyzed.”

Commission and council

Jill Hicks said there is a perception that members of county council and the planning & zoning commission do not talk with each other.

“It seems odd that you need a workshop to talk together,” she said.

Lawson said members have to be careful what they talk about and are not permitted to discuss current applications with each other because of legal issues.

But, he said, that does not mean members can't talk with each other and staff about general issues.

“Is there a way to ensure there is follow-up by council?” Hicks asked. “I don't think council is aware how many applications are approved by planning & zoning. They need follow-up to know what their decisions led to.”

Lawson said he agrees. “Some of the development we see is not reaching the levels what county council perceived,” he said.

Planning & zoning commissioners vote on subdivision applications, not county council, unless there is an appeal. County council and planning & zoning each have hearings and vote on conditional-use, residential planned communities and rezoning applications.

About the coalition

Coalition moderator Jane Gruenebaum said since the coalition was formed 10 months ago, more than 150 allies have joined. She said the mission of the group is to increase the effectiveness of groups and individuals working in Sussex County to preserve natural habitats for the well-being of all communities, and to promote resiliency, sustainability and climate adaptation.

The grassroots organization is active in educating the public about the county land-use process, advocating and working for policy change.

“We want to work closely with county council to be a positive force for change, and alert county council to concerns of residents,” she said.

Some of the groups involved include Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth, Sussex 2030, Preserve Our Park, The Sierra Club, Inland Bays Foundation, Save Our Lakes Alliance 3 and The Nature Conservancy.

Gruenebaum said they are planning training sessions on the best ways to work with county council. They are also planning an Arbor Day event.


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