Lewes officials took their time and thoroughly explained their justification for annexing the 34-acre Brittingham property on New Road at mayor and city council’s Nov. 13 meeting.
They were responding to the overwhelming public opposition to a proposal from developer Joseph Setting of Setting Properties Inc., who has said he plans to pursue a project of 90 townhouses. Council heard from dozens of residents at the Oct. 30 public hearing. They then received an additional 46 letters before the record was closed.
Council voted unanimously to approve annexation. All council members agreed this property would be developed whether it was annexed into the city or not, and Lewes would have more control if developed under the city’s regulations.
“In a perfect world this wouldn’t be developed,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Osler, pointing out that the city pledged $500,000 to a failed New Road preservation effort that emerged after Groome Church agreed to sell its 134-acre property to a developer.
“I wish the developer would choose not to build to the maximum allowed,” she said. “I implore this developer to limit the number of units rather than blindly pursuing every dollar that can be squeezed out of this property.”
She said the city is in a difficult position because if the land were not annexed, the developer could seek 120-plus townhouses via conditional use with Sussex County. Although townhouses are an option by right under the city’s annexation residential zoning, Osler said, the likelihood is high that a conditional use would be approved in the county.
Although voting in favor of annexation, Councilman Rob Morgan attempted to have a vote delayed until the end of the month. He said Sussex County Council is set to vote on new density calculations that remove wetlands from the equation when determining the maximum number of units allowed on a property. He said what happens there could significantly impact the city’s approach to development and annexation.
The city’s two annexation zones, approved by council in May, were designed to be competitive with Sussex County’s more relaxed zoning regulations. The annexation zones offer regulations that are more strict than the county’s but more lenient than what’s allowed in Lewes.
“If the county acts on Nov. 27, we’ll know a little bit more,” Morgan said. “This is directly relevant to the way we crafted our annexation residential zoning.”
By delaying, he said, the city could wait and see and possibly revise the annexation residential regulations.
Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait vehemently disagreed.
“We cannot change the zones and requirements once the process has started,” he said, calling it unprofessional. “You don’t in the fourth inning of a baseball game decide that it takes four strikes to get an out. We have set the ground rules.”
In 2014, after developers withdrew two projects – Showfield and Point Farm – and reapplied and quickly received approval from Sussex County officials, council decided to separate the annexation process from subdivision approval in an effort to simplify and expedite the process for developers.
City Manager Ann Marie Townshend said an annexation regulation review ad hoc committee was created to develop revisions to the annexation process, amendments to the city’s charter and code and incentives to encourage annexation. The committee held 24 public meetings over a 16-month period. During some of those meetings, the city’s new annexation residential zone was discussed.
“Everything was done in the public domain,” said Beaufait, who chaired the annexation regulation review ad hoc committee.
Mayor Ted Becker said this specific property was identified in a FutureScan study nearly 10 years ago as a parcel the city should acquire. That didn’t happen, he said, and the city needs to be in control of how the land is used. He said delaying a vote could push the developer to withdraw and seek approval with the county.
“This parcel is best administered with the city,” he said.
Osler said annexation is not the end of the process. Before the developer can begin, he must submit a plan to the city, which will be reviewed by the planning commission and city council. Per code, the planning commission must consider 22 different factors when making its recommendation to council.
Setting will hold a workshop to present his conceptual plan to the public at 6 p.m., Monday, Nov. 26, at the Lewes Public Library.
Residents were unable to speak at the Nov. 13 meeting, as the record had been closed. Several residents held signs urging council to delay the vote, and there were a few outbursts from the audience during discussion of the annexation.
Debra Evalds said she understands council’s rationale for annexing the land, but she wonders if the new annexation zones allow too much.
“We must be sure that the special character and value of Lewes is preserved, and that annexed areas are developed in keeping with the adjacent City of Lewes neighborhoods,” she said.
She said townhouses are not a transition from Lewes to county jurisdiction. She said she does not question that council did all of its work on the new annexation zones in public, but says few residents realized how important their input was until it was too late.
“I hope the City of Lewes will reopen the dialogue to discuss other options and changes to the annexation zoning codes,” she said.
Resident Marta Nammack said city council should have waited until after the county’s vote on density calculations related to wetlands. Regardless of that decision, she said, the city should take action to remove wetlands from the equation.
“We should be proactive and do all we can to protect our wetlands and other ecologically sensitive areas from high-density development,” she said. “If that means developers will not want to have their lands annexed, so be it. We shouldn't stoop so low in order to attract developers.”
She also wants to see council adopt a 75-foot forested buffer for its annexation residential zone. Existing code requires 30 feet. She said County Councilman I.G. Burton has proposed the county’s buffer be extended from 20 feet to 40 feet.
Generally, she said, there should be a moratorium placed on development on New Road until a better vision of the corridor is realized, especially as the Historic Lewes Scenic Byway committee works on a New Road master plan.