Sussex council says no to fitness, therapy center

Officials agree with residents that project out of scale with surrounding area
August 8, 2017

Story Location:
1523 Savannah Road
Lewes  Delaware
United States


Michael Elrod, who lives along Savannah Road in Lewes, says Sussex County Council listened to residents' concerns when it denied an application for a controversial project in his neighborhood.

At its Aug. 8 meeting, council voted 4-1 to deny a conditional-use application for the proposed Gateway Motion and Fitness Center.

Developer Quail Valley LLC sought approval to construct a 56,600-square-foot fitness and therapy center on a six-acre parcel at 1523 Savannah Road. The property is zoned AR-1, agricultural-residential, where commercial projects require a conditional use to proceed.

Making the motion for denial, Councilman I.G. Burton, R-Lewes, said the proposed project was out of character with the surrounding area, which consists of homes, small businesses and professional offices. “This use, with its scale, parking requirements, hours of operation and other characteristics, is a more dense urban use, which should be in areas for such uses,” Burton said.

He said he did not agree with the recommendation of approval from the county's planning and zoning commission, especially the finding that it would have minimal impact on the area. “It is entirely different than anything else in this area of Savannah Road, particularly the residential communities that surround it,” he said.

Burton agreed with residents that the proposed facility's scale did not march anything else in the immediate area.

“All of the other buildings on Savannah Road are much smaller, and many of them are located in dwellings that have been re-purposed as professional offices,” he said.

He said the largest complex of buildings in the area, Bayview Medical Center with three buildings, is 26,200 square feet.

Burton said the shape of the property dictates that the proposed building and parking would be located where it has the greatest impact on residential areas.

The developer had submitted a third site plan for county review but county attorney Everett Moore said the plan was submitted after the public record was closed. “The applicant was asking the county to disregard its procedure set up in code by having three public hearings on three different plans for one application,” he said.

The county’s planning and zoning commission had recommended approval of the application. Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, voted in favor the application saying it was a property rights issue.

Elrod said this was not a case of people complaining about general things. It was about an organized group of residents voicing valid and reasonable concerns with a specific project that would have negatively impacted their lives, he said.

“Most pleasing is the fact the council heard, agreed and acted in a way to protect us, the residents of Sussex County, from such a gross and obvious imposition. Community involvement is effective, but it requires more than words, it requires action,” he said. “The council, by this denial, shows that they actually do listen to reasonable concerns and desires of the public.

“Everyone is aware of the traffic and the explosive attraction this area holds for so many. It's more important now than ever to make reasonable plans to manage this growth, and the council has shown that public input is important and effective in creating those plans,” he said.

Applicant has an option to appeal

Glenn Mandalas, attorney for the applicants, said no decision has been made as to whether an appeal will be filed. If one is filed, he said, the applicants would likely prevail.

“While there is testimony on the record about concerns, there is no quantitative, empirical evidence that those concerns are meritorious. That makes the conclusions reached by county council arbitrary,” he said. “The planning and zoning commission recommended approval with conditions, which we satisfy. It is rare that any council rejects a recommendation from its planning experts,” the attorney said.

He said in an appeal, the county will need to show there is substantial evidence on the record to support its conclusions. “But there is no evidence on the record, let alone substantial evidence, to support county council's conclusions,” Mandalas said.

He said the applicants worked in good faith to make changes to the plan. “When it is done right, land development is a give-and-take process. At every stage of the process my clients made plan revisions to address concerns raised by the community,” he said.

He also disputes the opinion of the county attorney that the new site plan was not admissible.

“My clients were denied due process when the county considered everything submitted by those opposed to the project but refused – based upon the advice of its legal counsel – to consider revisions we proposed to address concerns raised during the public hearing,” Mandalas said. “While the record is open, which it was, the county council should be able to consider whatever is submitted by any party.”