Editorial: Cluster discussion critical for Sussex
The cluster ordinance discussion underway in Sussex is hugely important. In many ways, its outcome will determine how the county develops for a long time into the future. If we hope to craft a future all Sussex Countians can be proud of, it is critical to get back to the original premise behind allowing developers to cluster permitted density on smaller lots than would otherwise be allowed.
The premise wasn’t finding a way to jam more houses and lots onto this desirable Sussex landscape. Rather, the idea was to find ways to better manage the basic two units per acre allowed by right in the county’s predominant Agricultural/Residential (AR-1) zoning category. The force behind better management was a concept in the original cluster discussions called superior standards.
These standards were intended to engender smart growth through excellent design: using enlightened mobility components, maximizing contiguous areas of open space, preserving natural environmental areas, minimizing impervious surfaces. In general, superior standards associated with clustering of smaller lots - not a greater number of lots - are evidenced most plainly by reduction in the overall size of a development’s footprint on the land.
Randall Arendt, a nationally prominent land-use planner/designer, wrote guides for Delaware demonstrating the wisdom of clustering and its benefits. The current discussion would benefit from revisiting Arendt’s guidelines.
Clustering smaller-size lots has economic benefits for developers, and consequently, for landowners who want to maximize the value of their land. Clustering smaller lots on a parcel offers greater opportunity to fully realize the number of lots permitted. It’s a win for developers and landowners, but it’s only a win for Sussex as a whole if clustering truly results in superior standards. That will happen only if those standards are mandatory.
Developers, in the full spirit of the contract, must demonstrate superior standards. The county’s professional staff must certify that clustering proposals demonstrate superior design and show that to the planning commissioners.
Finally, planning commissioners must only approve only cluster developments that meet that overall test.