A density change, a computer glitch and local government, state government and residents at odds. That’s what came out of last week’s Cabinet Committee on State Planning Issues hearing into Sussex County’s efforts to change the comprehensive plan to allow higher density development in an area of rural western Sussex.
The kerfuffle over changing the Sussex County comprehensive plan is almost a year old now. It would increase the maximum allowable homes on the land from around 5,000 homes to almost 11,000 if zoning were changed. The county has painted it as correcting an oversight, but opponents say the facts of the matter are more consequential.
Since the beginning, the county has argued that the plan was to leave the land designation for several large plots along Route 54 and Providence Church Road unchanged from its 2008 designations. Initially, Councilperson John Rieley said the changes to the latest comprehensive plan were made after the county completed its work.
"The map was sent to the state after being voted on and approved by Council but apparently had been changed by the time it was returned from the state sign off process,” he wrote in an explanatory post to constituents.
Another explanation proffered by the county was that it could have been an accident, someone mistakenly clicking on the affected plots without noticing.
In reality, the Council had approved the map it now disputes.
In recent months, an investigation revealed that the computer program used to compose the comprehensive plan changed the designation on its own, county staff say.
According to Assistant Sussex County Attorney Vince Robertson, the computer was trying to reconcile the property designation with the underlying zoning. Density rules have changed since 2008, which put the county’s original designation at odds with the updated rules. Essentially, he said, the system changed the former classification because it was no longer consistent with the existing zoning. Earlier the Independent was told that the computer picked an option that never got reviewed by County Council.
It is a critical point. Sussex County dismisses the state’s assertion that with this change the developer could add more than 10,000 homes if the zoning is changed, saying possible zoning changes are beyond the purview of the dispute resolution.
Robertson said the county wanted to reinstate the 2008 comprehensive plan for the plots in question. Members of the Cabinet Committee countered that since the density calculations have changed, just going partially back to 2008 isn’t possible.
Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse contended that the county would be free to change the zoning if the comprehensive plan was changed. The county already can do as it pleases with the comprehensive plan, zoning and density. What it can’t do is force the state to fund the extra schools, emergency service agencies and infrastructure such growth would affect. Those costs could fall to taxpayers or the developer or just go unmet.
Objections from officials and residents
“The process is broken,” said David Hutt, attorney for Robert Horsey, one of the property owners. “Mr. Horsey has been impacted by this decision more than anyone.”
The dozen or so residents, public officials and land-use advocates who testified disagreed. Commenters from local business owners to former school board officials to the Delmar mayor and chief of police spoke about how letting Horsey build a Delmar-sized town so far from already-developed areas would devastate civic operations.
Trey Moore, who owns the property across the street from part of the proposed development, said he had known Horsey since childhood. He also talked about the land he would lose to the right-of-way if Sussex allowed Horsey to proceed with his development.
Flooding is already a problem on several of the surrounding properties, according to several commenters. A development of this size, they said, would only exacerbate the problem the state and county are already struggling to address.
After more than two hours of testimony and public comments, the committee elected to table the issue and will accept comments from stakeholders. With the exception of Hutt no one spoke in favor of the change, which prompted Scuse to extend the time for public comment. Many residents missed the chance to comment during Sussex County’s process before it passed the contested changes.
Comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 9.
After absorbing the testimony and the comments the committee will set a date to reconvene to discuss the issues and render its decision.
Note: The spelling of the assistant county attorney's name has been corrected.