When Lewes Mayor and City Council voted Jan. 7 to exempt the 34-acre Brittingham property from anticipated changes to zoning regulations, few residents were in attendance.
A Freedom of Information Act complaint followed, and the Attorney General’s Office found the city did not properly notice the executive session that preceded the vote and that the private nature of the meeting was unnecessary.
The AG’s Office recommended the city to hold the meeting again to correct its mistakes. When Mayor Ted Becker brought the March 14 meeting to order, every seat in council chambers was filled. Residents lined the wall and stood out in the lobby.
Despite pleas from residents, council voted 3-1 to uphold its previous decision, meaning the developer of the Brittingham property, Setting Properties Inc., can move forward with its development under the regulations that existed when the property was annexed in November.
Opponents were pushing city officials to subject the developer to amended regulations that the city’s annexation regulation committee has recommended, such as a more strict density formula and more required open space.
The developer has already submitted an application to build 90 townhouses on the property. Called Lewes Waterfront Preserve, the project is already under review by the city planning commission. The initial presentation was held Feb. 20.
After more than an hour of comments from the public, Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait and Councilman Dennis Reardon read from prepared statements, stating their reasons for why they supported the exemption.
That was the tipping point for Harborview Road resident Thierry Poirey. “You have absolutely ignored what people have said here,” he yelled. “Shame on you. This is shameful.”
Poirey was asked to leave the meeting, and he complied.
Reardon said he came into the meeting with an open mind but did not hear anything he hadn’t already heard or read in phone calls and emails from residents.
Councilman Rob Morgan, the lone nay vote, pushed for Beaufait to recuse himself from a vote. Morgan alleged Beaufait had become too close with the developer, accusing him of having private meetings with Joe Setting and his representatives.
Beaufait called Morgan’s inquiry inappropriate, but addressed his concerns anyway. He said he had had a meeting with Setting and his attorney Jim Fuqua along with Reardon, City Manager Ann Marie Townshend, and Planning and Development Coordinator Tom West, after the property had been annexed, to go over what was allowed in the annexation-residential zoning district. Setting is the first applicant to seek the new zone.
Beaufait said he also had a brief phone conversation with Fuqua before the Jan. 7 executive session, when Fuqua asked if he could provide any information for the upcoming meeting. Beaufait said he declined and told Fuqua to let the process play out.
Beaufait maintained his previous stance that the development should move forward under regulations that existed when the property was annexed into the city in November. “Changing the rules at this time would be the end of any [future] annexation efforts and make a mockery of our comp plan,” he said.
Beaufait repeated his argument that the developer could have received more density in the county than in the city. He says Setting could’ve sought 138 townhouses via a conditional use with Sussex County, compared to the 90 being sought now.
Morgan disagreed with his colleagues. He said the developer’s application is not far enough along in the process to claim vested rights. “When a developer takes on a project, it seems to me they take on some risks,” he said. “One of those risks is a change in environment.”
In November, Morgan voted in favor of annexation, but only after an unsuccessful attempt to delay the vote until after Sussex County Council made a decision on changing its density calculation formula. County officials voted in favor of those changes less than a month later.
Mayor Ted Becker said he’s long been a proponent of reasonable development. He said the city missed the opportunity to annex nearly all the land out to Route 1 in the ’80s and ’90s. He said several mayors expressed interest, but it never gained traction with city council members.
He said he believes annexing the property was the right thing to do, and it will ultimately benefit the city. He pointed to the nearby Point Farm development off New Road, saying the developer had sought to annex, but pulled its application and resubmitted it to Sussex County. In just a few months, it was approved and now will have taller structures and narrower streets, among other differences.
“The only way to control development is to annex land into the city,” he said.
Editor’s note: Councilperson Bonnie Osler was absent from the meeting, attending a funeral out of state.