Route 54 residents get insight into zoning process

Date Published: 
Nov. 17, 20177

Residents along Route 54 in Selbyville are trying to get a grip on the traffic volume on their two-lane roadway. At a Nov. 2 public meeting, the problem wasn’t solved, but now people know how it happened.

“The market is very strong right now. This area is a very ideal area for development. So you are going to see a lot more,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson.

Follow the issue

“You need to follow this issue if you’re concerned with it,” said Lawson, who runs the County’s offices at the direction of the elected county council.

It’s up to citizens to stay informed, he noted. Sussex County isn’t required to notify every single person along Route 54 that a nearby property is being discussed. Lawson reviewed different forms of public notice, including newspaper legal notices and the detailed County website.

He showed a plastic yard sign that read “NOTICE: PUBLIC HEARING.” When people see that black text on a yellow background, he said, they can learn more about the property online at www.SussexCountyDE.gov.

“This is to alert you … someone is asking to do something with that piece of property,” Lawson said. “We hand out hundreds of these in a given year to folks who are looking to change their land use or zoning.”

That’s when neighbors should pay attention and speak up if they have questions or concerns, he said.

The County website offers meeting agendas, minutes, audio recordings and more. All land-use applications are listed online, back to 2010, at SussexCountyDE.gov/land-use-application-docket.

The right to build

Most of Sussex County is zoned Agricultural, having first been designated as such in the 1970s. Unlike some land planning approvals, zoning changes are permanent, so if someone receives approval for rezoning property up to a commercial or medium-density zone, an empty field can remain as such until they’re ready to submit building plans, even if neighbors move in after a public hearing and are unaware of the change in zoning.

People have the right to use their land as they like (with some exceptions), so someone can build two homes on one acre. They don’t need to ask permission. They only need building and entrance plans approved.

Lawson pointed to a lot that was rezoned as commercial in 1984.

“That could be something tomorrow that it wasn’t today, and that was approved in ’84. And that doesn’t come before County Council,” Lawson said.

If a property is already zoned commercial, most commercial uses are permitted by right, so a business then only needs to show Planning & Zoning where their parking lot, store and stormwater management will be located. No public hearing is required.

On Route 54, the zoning change for the parcel set to house a new Royal Farms store occurred in 2014. A nearby housing development was approved in 2006.

“Everyone is upset because you see the construction,” but some of those zoning changes occurred 10 years ago, Lawson said.

“But none of us lived here 10 years ago!” someone in the audience shouted.

“What you’re seeing was approved 10 years ago,” Lawson repeated. “When we zoned the entire county back in the ’70s,” some of it still hasn’t changed.

Three groups make land-use decisions in Sussex County: the County Council, the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Board of Adjustment. But the latter two boards (both appointed by the council) can approve some exceptions and variances without council approval, while they have recommendation power for others. All of those groups meet publicly, though, and meeting agendas are posted publicly beforehand.

Historically, Sussex County Council rarely denies zoning changes (just eight times in the last seven years). Present for five of those denials, Councilman Rob Arlett gave the lone vote of support for the requested zoning changes on four of those occasions, twice going against the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recommendation to deny them.

Swann Keys resident Bill Hutchison asked whether County leaders would promise to make future developers improve roads before allowing future construction, as New Castle County does. Arlett was noncommittal, only saying that he’s open to ideas if they work well.

“The County is in charge of the land use, but we’re not in charge of the roads,” Arlett said.

But the Delaware Department of Transportation must work with whatever the County approves.

“We do not control land use, but we do react to it” and must provide access from that business to the road, said Rob McCleary, a DelDOT chief engineer.

“It’s their right to put up the Starbucks,” McCleary said of a hypothetical coffee shop on commercially-zoned land, but they still need County and State approvals for designs. “When development makes that [request], [DelDOT] has the opportunity to ask them to make improvements either at their entrance or intersections nearby.”

But for all the new construction the County allows, they only collect impact fees for county sewer connections, not for other services, such as police or volunteer fire service.

Some of those who spoke at the Nov. 2 meeting said they felt that developers weren’t paying their fair share to improve the roads.

“They don’t get a free pass on what they want to build. … A project has to do a traffic impact study when they generate” a certain number of vehicle trips to the property, said Marc Coté, a DelDOT assistant director and engineer.

Change is inevitable, several people said, but they begged for more responsible development. Some even asked for a development moratorium — an idea that garnered applause. Besides cars, elected officials need to consider pedestrians, cyclists and the nearby inland bays, residents said.

“We do not design for the absolute peak summer Saturday because that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and be very impactful. We don’t design for evacuation, either,” Coté said. “We count for the cars on the road, not whether they’re going to Ocean City. … The cars that are analyzed are just those on the road, not where they’re going.”

The impacts

As one of the few east-west roads along the Delaware coast, Route 54 is also an evacuation route. Some people cited that as a reason to consider making it a four-lane roadway.

More traffic and accidents could cost people’s bank accounts, too. Auto insurance companies charge based on personal driving history, but also based on ZIP codes, said Vince Ryan, senior advisor to the Delaware Insurance Commissioner. A town with more accidents will have higher insurance rates than the quieter areas.

“We’re seeing significant development, more traffic … as Sussex County becomes more dense,” said Ryan. “In terms of traffic going through there, that’s gonna continue to be a factor.”

Although Ryan said he couldn’t speak to specific situations in the 19975 postal code, a Route 54 resident claimed his rates have increased because of geography.

Residents of the Keenwick Sound development also repeated their desire for a traffic signal at the site of the Royal Farms convenience store and gas station being built across from the Keenwick entrance. In summer, they said, they already have trouble exiting the neighborhood onto Route 54, even without a major business across the street.

At public request, DelDOT plans to analyze traffic signals and study new traffic counts in summer of 2018.

“If you want to see a project get done … it starts with the County. They have a transportation aspirations list. That rolls to DelDOT, and we prioritize them,” said Rob McCleary, a chief engineer. “What I heard tonight was a lot of folks want to see a project.”

Comp plan ready for review

If people really want to change the system, they have to get involved right now. The county council is about to begin reviewing the draft of an updated Sussex County Comprehensive Plan (sussexplan.com), which is “our road map for how the residents, visitors, decision-makers want the county to look like in the next 20, 30, 40 years. … We have to follow what is in that comp plan,” Lawson said.

In fact, while addressing the Route 54 crowd, Lawson received a message that the Planning & Zoning Commission, meeting at the same time in Georgetown, had finally completed their months-long work of creating the draft for council review.

Public hearings will continue until the plan’s approval deadline on June 30, 2018.

The draft Sussex County Comprehensive Plan is online at www.SussexPlan.com.

People can contact Sussex County Council representatives by visiting https://sussexcountyde.gov/contact-information or by calling (302) 855-7700.