SARG: Public involvement key to land-use review

August 18, 2023

This September, Sussex County land-use statutes and regulations will be reviewed in a joint workshop, with recommendations presented to Sussex County Council and the planning & zoning commission.

Residents of Sussex County have become more vocal and active in expressing disappointment and discontent with the high volume of new residential developments.

Negative impact on quality of life for residents and neighboring communities can no longer be ignored. Many concerns have been chronicled in the press, and by citizens speaking at county meetings and public hearings.

Numerous examples of egregious impacts on wooded areas, wetlands and other environmental features, as well as traffic congestion, deficient design and noncompliance with existing codes are well documented.

These concerns are magnified by the unmistakable and increasing disconnect between the planning & zoning commission and county council regarding land-use decisions.

In March, Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson responded to a key council initiative: the urgent need to address outdated county land-use codes and lack of oversight on development and its impacts in Sussex County.

Under the heading of development design, the council requested that staff review statutes and regulations related to open space, buffers, forest preservation, subdivision design and other key factors in the development process, and recommend possible revisions.

During Lawson's March presentation, no timetable for completing this process was presented. The ground rules are that staff at that time will present their findings and recommendations for consideration on five broad categories: open space, superior design, subdivision standards, forest preservation and site work.

After consideration by council and the commission, council will provide staff with a desired path forward. Staff will then draft changes to the applicable ordinances and regulations for presentation to the commission and council.

Unfortunately, only at this point do public stakeholders have any opportunity to suggest changes, present information or have any formal input to the recommendations given to the council. Public comments are not typically accepted during workshops.

Any amendments to ordinances would eventually be required to follow the county process, including public hearings, and ultimately a vote by council, but this could be months after the review process has been completed.

This review of development regulations may be the most extensive ever in the history of Sussex County. The results of this effort will determine how the county plans for and manages development, and sets standards that will help guide the development of the upcoming comprehensive plan and provide for more orderly future growth.

The Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth seeks to ensure that the final presentation is complete, objective, and includes consideration of all best practices and approaches to the development issues plaguing Sussex County.

Most importantly, it must be inclusive and comprehensive in presenting the views of all concerned stakeholders, especially the impacted public. Council has an obligation to residents to assure that future communities fit into and complement the fabric of Sussex County, not just serve developers. The county cannot squander this opportunity.

Until the workshop actually takes place and legislation is drafted, the burden falls on the public to communicate concerns. It is crucial that elected and appointed officials hear the concerns of the people who live and work here and are affected every day. What would you like to see in the way of reforms before staff recommendations are locked in?

Please think carefully about the development issues that are of concern to you, and convey your thoughts to council and the planning & zoning commission. They don't have to fit any specific category or be in formal planning language; just directly express in your words your concerns about development problems you want council to deal with. But as a famous commercial says, “Just do it,” because the staff is already at work on these issues and will need time to research any others a council member may ask about.

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The Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth is a community-based, nonpartisan citizens alliance whose focus is to inform, educate and engage the residents of Sussex County.
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