Sussex council outlines priorities

Improved buffers, forest preservation and open space on the list
March 10, 2023

Several potential changes to Sussex County code related to development are included among priorities established by county council.

During the March 7 meeting, County Administrator Todd Lawson presented a list of priorities in several categories, including some of the most hot-button topics in the county such as buffers, forest preservation, superior design elements and open space.

Lawson said among priorities listed by the planning & zoning commission are transfer of development rights, changes to subdivision design elements and a joint workshop with county council to discuss trends, observations and needs.

Lawson said updates are needed to the state’s assessment process. He said the county’s suggestions have been submitted to officials in New Castle and Kent counties for their input.

Because of issues with the process, the county assessment deadline has been delayed a year to July 2024.

Potential code updates include improved stormwater management regulations, tiny home zoning, garage studio dwellings and pool regulations.

Lawson said ordinances in process include solar farm regulations, the subdivision appeal process, master plan zoning and amenities standards.

Superior design

County assistant attorney Vince Robertson discussed superior design elements with council. He said issues include better protection of buffers, removal of berms and fences as allowable buffers, and a review of the 7,500-square-foot minimum lot size in cluster subdivisions.

Robertson said the county has 17 items that developers must consider when building subdivisions. “What does ‘consider’ mean?” he asked. He said it does not necessarily mean the items are required.

“It sounds like a loophole you could drive a truck through,” said Councilman John Rieley.

“I think we have to add regulations that developers must satisfy those items. We need to make them less general and more quantifiable,” he said.

Forest preservation

County Planning & Zoning Director Jamie Whitehouse said council could consider additional incentives and options that allow flexibility and better design to encourage forest preservation.

Among considerations, he said, is a mandatory forest assessment to designate the most valuable environmental areas on a parcel. He said an assessment would be helpful to planning & zoning in the site-plan review process, and to planning & zoning staff.

In addition, he said, other issues include better protection for existing woods in perimeter buffers and more protection to properties during construction.

Whitehouse said under current perimeter buffer requirements, it could take five years or more before a buffer gets established if existing woods and vegetation are not used.

Councilman Mark Schaeffer said Sussex Conservation District drainage regulations may promote clear-cutting of properties.

“That’s something we need to address,” he said.

Design standards

Lawson said possible changes to development design standards, especially in cluster subdivisions are among the main priorities expressed by council and planning & zoning. Among those standards are open space, superior design, forest preservation and site work.

Open space standards include passive and active open space. Lawson said a consideration of whether residents should have access to all open space should be discussed.

Stormwater management, amenities, stormwater ponds, forests and perimeter buffers are all currently counted as open space.

He said it’s not clear what type of stormwater management is permitted in open space. He said no buildings are currently permitted in open space areas, yet clubhouses and pools are allowed and counted as open space.

Lawson said it’s an inconsistency that needs to be looked at.

“Is open space an area you can enjoy or is it decorative ponds?” Lawson asked.

DelDOT priorities

Several priorities involve the Delaware Department of Transportation, including a review of the memorandum of understanding between the county and DelDOT, additions to the DelDOT capital transportation program and a long-term discussion on state development funding.

Lawson said council should consider if the amount developers pay for road improvements is enough.

Rieley said he and Councilman Doug Hudson have been trying to track down the amount of funding DelDOT collects from developers.

“We haven’t been able to get a number. It’s a moving target,” he said.

Hudson said not having a number adds to confusion and the misunderstanding by the public that developers do not pay for road improvements.

Lawson said people see road improvements made along frontage roads of subdivisions, but they are not aware of money developers contribute to off-site road work.

Lawson said DelDOT officials will make a presentation on road improvement projects at a meeting later in March.

He said construction of Sweetbriar-Hudson-Cave Neck roads intersection improvements, funded through the county’s Funding Accelerating Safety in Transportation program, will start in fall 2024. The county provided $4.5 million to the project in 2020, which will be reimbursed when the project is completed. It was originally scheduled to begin after 2025.

Other priorities

Other priorities include work at the Delaware Coastal Airport, including expansion of the airport’s main runaway to 6,000 feet. Lawson said county staff is meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials and elected state officials to speed up the extension project.

Lawson said Phase 2 of the Coastal Delaware Business Park infrastructure is complete.

“We are soliciting potential tenants, and we are excited about the future,” he said.

The county administrator said funding for EMS and local fire and ambulance departments is always a priority. He said providing mental health training to emergency responders is critical.

“They are faced with mental health challenges almost daily. We have initiatives in progress that we want to expand,” he said.

He said a new EMS station in Millsboro will open this year.

He said there are ongoing discussions with the Sussex County Volunteer Firefighters Association to determine needs today and in the future.

The purchase of open space has been a top priority as well.

“There are other parcels that we are working on with our partners. We’ve had historic levels of acquisition,” he said.

Lawson said the county is in the process of establishing a memorandum of understanding with the Sussex County Land Trust.

Lawson said the next step is to gain feedback from council and make a presentation to planning & zoning.

“We need for you to give us a direction on what’s next,” Lawson said to council.


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