Plans to develop the Mitchell Farm outside Lewes highlight what the developer's engineer has called a problem with the new Sussex County C-4 commercial zoning district.
C-4 is the only commercial district that allows for residential development, but local developers say a 20 percent residential cap is too restrictive and should be increased.
L.W. and J.T. Mitchell Family Limited Partnership presented plans to the state's Preliminary Land Use Service in Dover Jan. 23 to review a rezoning of 20 acres from AR-1, agricultural-residential, to C-4 commercial along Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road for six medical/professional office buildings totaling about 200,000 square feet. In addition, the property owner has a plan to rezone 30 acres adjacent to the parcel from AR-1 to MR, medium-density residential, for a future residential subdivision.
Ring Lardner, the applicant's engineer, had asked Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission and Sussex County Council to consider an amendment to its new C-4 zoning district to increase the maximum percentage of residential development, currently capped at 20 percent of a parcel size.
At its Nov. 15, 2018 meeting, planning and zoning commissioners recommended council amend the ordinance, but council has yet to act. The commission recommended a change from 20 percent to 65 percent and that mixed-use structures not count toward residential density calculation.
At the PLUS meeting, Lardner said it was the applicants' intention to file for C-4 zoning for the entire 50-acre parcel, but the residential percentage was too low. Lardner said the applicants could not wait for council to render a decision on an amendment because of the interest in the commercial zoning. This is the first application for the C-4 district.
The new C-4 district – designed for large-scale commercial, retail and mixed-use development – requires the applicant to provide a site plan at the time of public hearings. Sussex officials can then place conditions on the application. It is the only commercial district where residential development is permitted.
Lardner said while plans for the residential community are not complete, the vision is to seek a density of 8 units per acre, or about 240 units. He said the high density would provide an opportunity to keep home prices more affordable.
Karen Horton, Delaware State Housing Authority planner, said the proposed residential project would be a step toward answering a severe shortage of workforce housing in eastern Sussex County.
Because housing is more affordable in western Sussex, she said, 40 percent of workers commute across the county to coastal Sussex. “It's time for eastern Sussex to open up and provide this type of housing,” she said. “Housing needs to be near where the jobs are.”
She said that would help ease traffic issues on some roads leading into coastal Sussex.
She urged the property owner to consider the county's density bonus program and offer a guarantee of affordable housing units.
The applicant will have to return to PLUS for a review of the residential site plan.
Delaware Department of Transportation representative Bill Brockenbrough said he would reserve most of his comments until a traffic- impact study is completed. Lardner said the study should be completed in March.
Lardner said DelDOT has plans to dualize Kings Highway from Dartmouth Drive to a yet-to-be determined terminus. The project has been added to the capital transportation program with construction set for 2026, Brockenbrough said.
Lardner said all buildings would have a 60-foot setback from the existing roads with dedicated right of way wide enough for the dualization project. He said the applicant would work to comply with the Historic Lewes Byway master plan for Gills Neck Road and Kings Highway.
Plans for the commercial section include six lots for office buildings ranging in size from 18,000 square feet to 39,000 square feet.
Lardner said one of the six lots – at the intersection of Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road – has been granted a conditional use for an office building. He said owners of the 39,000-square-foot Cape Henlopen Medical Facility could break ground as early as next week.
He said in order to keep the parcel under one zoning classification, the site plan includes that lot as part of the rezoning application. If approved, the conditional use would be replaced by C-4 zoning.
Sussex County planner Jamie Whitehouse urged Lardner and his team to meet with county planning and zoning staff early in the process because of new design standards in the C-4 district.
Dorothy Morris, representing the Delaware Office of State Planning Coordination, urged the property owner to reconsider annexation into the City of Lewes. “We encourage you to annex because the land is in Lewes' growth area. If not, we urge you to work with the city to make sure the projects complement surrounding neighborhoods,” she said.
Morris said her office has received several letters concerning the proposed projects. She asked if the correspondence should be forwarded to the county. Whitehouse said until rezoning applications are filed with the county, public comment can't be accepted. “At the moment there are no applications,” he said.
State agency officials have 20 days to provide reports on the projects to the applicants. Public comment is not accepted at PLUS meetings.