A local attorney says his clients deserve a second chance as Sussex County Council decides the fate of two land-use applications allowing for apartments on a small parcel off Route 24 near Love Creek bridge.
Victor and Mary Rico have filed a rezoning application from AR-1, agricultural-residential, to MR, medium density residential, for just under an acre at 20797 Sunset Lane. They have also filed a conditional-use application for seven multifamily housing units on the same parcel, which has five apartments in two houses.
Apartments are not permitted in AR-1 zoning.
During council's Jan. 28 public hearing, attorney Tim Willard said the matter boils down to three extra stoves, which differentiate apartments from single-family homes. “They could take out the stoves or ask for permission,” he said, adding the same number of people could still live in the two houses even if there were not apartments.
“There is a legitimate argument that this fits in the land-use plan. They are not getting away with something; it's not intentional,” he said.
Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended denial of the applications, but Willard said the change to MR zoning is appropriate and consistent with the county comprehensive plan and the surrounding area. He said the parcel is in a growth area, near commercial zones, in a county sewer district and is a near a major road, Route 24.
Willard said planning and zoning commissioners said there was nothing similar in the area but did not mention that a 10-unit motel is across from the houses off Sunset Lane.
The attorney also said the apartments provide much-needed affordable housing in the resort area, which is promoted in the county plan.
Among planning and zoning recommendations is allowing tenants until July 1 to find new housing.
Over the past two years, Victor Rico purchased two houses on Sunset Lane at auction. He lived in and renovated the first house into two studios and an apartment. The second house was converted into two apartments.
When renovating the houses, no building permits were obtained. The houses are included in a four-house condominium association.
“He did the rehab and made the apartments affordable. He did it on his own accord and is not hiding anything,” Willard said.
Mary Rico testified she was told by Sussex County staff they did not need a rental license or inspection.
In addition, she said, the couple has been paying $300 a month for almost a year in county sewer fees although their property has not been hooked into the system.
Some renovation of the units had already taken place, and additional electrical outlets were in place for more stoves, Mary Rico said.
She said 11 tenants live in the two apartment houses: five people in the three-unit apartment and six people in the two-unit apartment.
Willard provided several conditions of approval for council to consider, including mandatory sewer connection, inspections, a fenced-in trash container and a restriction limiting the two studio apartments to one tenant each.
Sunset Lane, which provides access to 10 other homes, is owned by the condominium association.
Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton of Lewes asked who maintains the road and whether other residents have an easement to use the road.
“With a conditional use you can ensure that,” Willard said.
Sunset Lane resident Tom O'Neal said he and his neighbors maintain the road. “The neighbors paid for stone last year. We get nothing out of the condo association,” he said, adding residents do have a right of way to use the road.
O'Neal said all the homes along the street are single-family homes. “Nobody forced them to buy the homes, and he knew they were single-family homes,” he said. “Now we have apartments in the middle of our community. He took a risk and got caught by the county.”
He said the road is nearly half the acreage of the parcel. “That means seven units on a half acre,” he said.
O'Neal said the residents feel for the tenants. “Now these people are in crisis because of Mr. Rico. It's not their fault. It was done illegally. Mr. Willard paints a good picture, but this project should have never been done,” he said.
Council deferred a vote to a future meeting.