Kings Highway setback waivers only benefit developers

September 8, 2023

An old saying holds the devil is in the details. That’s especially true of proposals to develop land. One significant detail is how far back from the road cars can park, known as the front-yard setback. Sussex County Code generally specifies 60 feet for commercial zoning, though a variety of other conditions (zoning, roadway type, roadway centerline, existing easements and historic agreements) might affect that distance. 

This devilish detail is important for Kings Highway, where three proposals for exceptions to the county’s setback requirements are now pending. The Village Center Shopping Center, Mitchell’s Corner commercial (a second building at the Gills Neck/Kings intersection) and the First Baptist Church of Lewes want parking closer to the roadway. These parcels’ frontage comprises a significant portion of Kings Highway.

The problem is simple: If approved, these requests for exceptions will seriously limit DelDOT engineers’ options in planning improvements along this heavily traveled roadway. Approvals will also make Kings Highway more like Coastal Highway, an outcome the community rejected when planning for the Kings Highway-Gills Neck Road Master Plan was completed in 2016.  Parking setbacks directly affect how much space road engineers have to locate bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, stormwater systems and landscaping.   

Developers must justify the requested exception in a letter to the planning & zoning commission. For example, in the Mitchell’s Corner letter, the engineering firm says, “The loss of land is a hardship for the owner, and we are respectfully requesting a waiver to allow one row of parking within the front-yard setback.” To comply with code, the developer would have to modify the site plan for the three-story, 42,300-square-foot office building. We should expect another exception request when the site plan is submitted for the adjacent 267 residential duplexes and townhouses. Approved exceptions allow developers to fit more construction onto the parcel to be developed.

There is an alternative: Site plans should be submitted that fit the site and do not require an exception.

Piecemeal consideration of projects along the corridor makes an undesirable result more likely. Today’s approved exception becomes tomorrow’s precedent. Parking exceptions for the Cape Henlopen Medical Center and Big Oyster in the past are now cited as precedents.

Decisions on this small setback detail have consequences for how the future Kings Highway will look and impact local residents’ quality of life. They will determine how close to the road building starts, how extensive impervious surfaces will be, the density of the project, how the right of way may be developed, the choices available for pedestrians and bikers, the stormwater system to be installed and landscaping options. 

Bottom line for the public: How do we want the future gateway to Lewes to look? Will this be a mini version of Route 1 with rows of cars lining the highway, or something more attractive? Allowing parking in the front-yard setback financially benefits the developer and landowners, but it does not benefit the public. If you agree, let the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission and county council know.

Jay Tomlinson


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