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Neighbors split on location of lawn care business

Subdivision covenants could be factor in final conditional-use decision
February 18, 2019

The owners of a family-run lawn care business near Lewes have run into issues as they seek permission to continue to operate at their current location.

Country Lawn Care & Maintenance LLC, c/o Gerald and Stephania Dougherty, filed for a conditional use for a landscape business on 4 acres of AR-1, agricultural-residential, zoned land at 30435 Hollymount Road, about one-half mile from the Beaver Dam intersection near the Spring Breeze subdivision.

Since the parcel is not zoned commercial, a conditional use would need to be granted by Sussex County Council. Commissioners make recommendations to county council members who have the final vote on applications. County council's public hearing is at 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 19, in the county administration building, 2 The Circle, Georgetown.

Some neighbors are questioning the effect of a commercial operation on a residential area, while others say the couple's business does not impact them.

And the issue of possible subdivision covenants restricting businesses has also surfaced.

During Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission's Jan. 24 public hearing, Shannon Carmean Burton, the applicant's attorney, said the couple purchased the property in 2016 where the previous owners also operated a landscaping business. She said the couple was unaware they needed a conditional-use permit until they were served a violation notice by Sussex County planning and zoning staff.

The couple has owned the business for seven years and operated from the current site for nearly three years. Their home is also located on the parcel.

The company's typical hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Friday. Carmean Burton said the company employs 10 people with no work done on site. There is no storage of bulk material on site and no retail sales. She said a privacy fence and natural woods provide buffers from adjoining properties.

The application includes a proposal to add a 2,000-square-foot addition to an existing building and demolish existing sheds.

The company builds patios and does hardscaping, mowing and snow removal. “We never want to be an eyesore; we want to take our neighbors into consideration,” Gerald Dougherty said. He said there are no weekend hours and no overtime work.

“I'm sorry you reached this point,” said Commission Chairman Bob Wheatley. “At some point, someone should have said something. I'm sure you had a realtor and settlement attorney, and nobody talked to you about zoning and what you were going to do there. I find that to be disappointing.”

“I feel a little duped as well,” Dougherty said.

Question of covenants

The question of restrictive covenants became an issue during the hearing. Hollymount Road resident Albert Stanley said when he purchased his lot, his contract contained covenants, including one restricting businesses in the subdivision.

Carmean Burton said the covenants have been abandoned and never been enforced. In addition, she said, there is no mechanism in place to amend the covenants.

Commission Chairman Bob Wheatley said, “We've typically not granted conditional uses inside subdivisions. This is not a typical subdivision, but the decision can still turn on the force of the covenants if they are in the chain of title. It's a serious consideration for us. It's what we've done with every subdivision in the 25 years I've been here.”

The public record has been left open to allow time for assistant county attorney Vince Robertson to research the deed restrictions and report back to the commission.

Three letters of support – including one from Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, and two from other Hollymount Road residents – are contained in the public record on file in the planning and zoning office.

Residents oppose application

James Spellman, who owns a lot adjacent to the parcel, said the couple should have known the restrictions of AR-1 zoning.

He read a long statement in opposition to the application. He claimed the use of the property did not fit the standards as outlined in state law for agricultural lands, and commercial use of the property upsets the balance of the community.

Spellman said he's owned the adjacent lot for nine years. “My ability to sell my lot has been impaired. That is verified by my realtor with me that observations of the level of activity on the site are problematic,” Spellman said.

Stanley said he has empathy for the couple, but, he said, residents can't infringe on somebody else's property or lifestyle. “If you allow this business, everybody can do the same thing,” he said.

Hollymount Road resident John Furbish said other residents follow the deed restrictions. “This is the wrong place for commercial – there is no other commercial on Hollymount Road,” he said. “You need to draw the line and be serious about zoning. It's not fair to the people who are doing the right thing.”