Agricultural/residential clash in Sussex sprouts ‘farm use’ discussion

Residential development in rural Sussex County has spurred discussion pertaining to ‘farm uses’ in the AR-1 zoning district.

GEORGETOWN – Rural Sussex County farmland is sprouting debate.

Seeds of discussion are planted and a few feathers perhaps ruffled pertaining to “farm uses” in Sussex County’s AR-1 zoning district, amid a growing clash between residential development and the agricultural community.

A presentation by Sussex County Assistant Attorney Vince Robertson and Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell at the June 26 county council meeting sprouted spirited discussion.

The primary focus is existing county code.

“We’ve got some conflicts out there today,” said county councilman George B. Cole. R-Ocean View. “The conflicts are going to be with the AR-1 district, a residential-zoned district. So, you are going to get all these residents that are moving in there. You’re going to have all these conflicts where there is no clear definition of what you can do on these things.”

Council colleague Irwin “I.G.” Burton, R-Lewes, agreed. “I think taking a proactive role will help the farmer, the residents and everybody. We should do that,” he said. “I think there is a clash that probably needs to be better defined on what is allowed, at what size, and I think it will help everybody.”

Mr. Robertson noted that county code includes a number of different definitions of things pertaining to agriculture, but “we don’t have a definition of ‘farm,’ … we have a definition of different agricultural type uses. We have agricultural-related industry …”

“It may also be possible that we are getting too hung up on what is the definition of the term ‘farm,’” said Mr. Robertson. “Really, whether something is quote/unquote a ‘farm’ or not may not be that relevant for some. It’s more important to have a ‘property’ and what can you do on that property?”

Agriculture ranks No. 1, ahead of tourism as the top industry in Delaware.

Several council members suggested county code needs to be reviewed, tightened, revised and streamlined with clear definition and clarity pertaining to farms and farm uses in AR-1.

While there is no definition of ‘farm,’ county code allows on a farm of five acres or more of AR-1-zoned land more than four cattle, eight sheep, eight goats and eight hogs. There have been complaints voiced regarding similar farm operations on parcels smaller than five acres.

                            George Cole

“But then in less than five acres, who is going to count the pigs? Who is going to count the ducks? Who is going to count this stuff? Nobody is,” Mr. Cole said. “I think it is time that we just look at it and we come up with something logical. I don’t expect us all sitting here to agree … but I think some kind of basic outline … what should be in five acres or less, or what should be in 10 acres.”

County council president Michael Vincent, R-Seaford, shared one complaint he received in his district from a resident whose neighbor has pigs, goats and chickens on about one acre. “Kind of close proximity,” Mr. Vincent said.

“There is nothing that says agriculture is more important than residential in the AR-1 district; nothing; they are equal,” said Mr. Cole. “So, we have to protect both concerns. And I don’t believe permitting poultry houses on less than 10 acres is protecting anybody. It could be detrimental to a residential neighborhood, because a lot of these areas are in transition from the agricultural look to more residential.”

County councilman Samuel Wilson Jr., R-Georgetown, a member of the Sussex farming community, responded.

“George … the statement he made, it sounds like to me he wants to do away with agriculture,” said Mr. Wilson Jr. “I think AR-1 land should stay where it is at.”

Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, urged that the voice from the farming community be heard in any discussion on code revision.

“We have not heard from farmers. I think we do need to provide clarity and less confusion, if there is confusion that exists. I wouldn’t be agreeable to doing anything without the input of the farmers, because ultimately this is going to mostly impact them. I think it has to be inclusive of the farmers,” said Mr. Arlett. “Are we barking up a tree for no reason? I don’t have the answer. Basically, on the way the code is currently written it is obvious it is a little gray on the definition of what a farm is. I don’t want to be reactive and knee jerky. I think we have to be sensitive and be inclusive of our farming community and hear from them.”

“I am only saying that we must include our farmers on anything that we change,” said Mr. Arlett. “That’s all I am saying. We cannot forget about them. We don’t know what’s best.”

“Amen,” said Mr. Wilson.

“Let’s just look at this and just tighten it up. It would be so simple if we could just condense all of this stuff and come up with something that would be enforceable – better zoning regulations,” said Mr. Cole. “All of this development that is happening in this county, so much of it is in the AR-1 district. When you’ve got this conflict inherent in this code we have, it’s just going to get worse. In other words, I’m trying to be a little proactive on an issue which I think is important.”

Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. offered some reminders.

“Some things you mentioned can be dealt with by setbacks,” said Mr. Moore. “The other thing you need to realize that anyone that buys into an AR-1 neighborhood has placed on their deed a restriction required by the state that they understand that they are buying in an area that has farming and they would be subjected to dust, odors, noises that are related to agriculture.”

“One of the issues that Mr. Moore read, or talked about, the deeds, I think that the real estate community is very weak on making sure people read that understanding when they buy something,” said Mr. Vincent. “I think they are probably more concerned about getting the sale than they are making somebody aware …”

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson asked for direction from council.

“I’m hearing that we are all over the place and we need to streamline. And then there are some things here that don’t seem like they may sense. But I’m not really hearing some direction, as to what the council wants us to analyze,” said Mr. Lawson. “I don’t understand what you want related to what we are talking about today, nor do I know of what the actual problem has been identified. If I know what this problem is, then we can tackle it.”

Mr. Cole asked Mr. Lawson if the planning and zoning office could assign a staff member to focus on these concerns and formulate something for council to consider.

Given planning and zoning’s current workload of applications, that would not be feasible, Mr. Lawson said.

So, what’s next?

Mr. Vincent asked staff to work up ideas and suggestions for follow-up discussion. At some point it would include an invite to the farming community.

Mr. Cole suggested that Sussex County might consider turning to its neighbor to the north, Kent County.

“When you look at Kent County, they’ve got a lot of agriculture going on. They’ve gone well beyond what we have done to protect agriculture. That is an accepted way of taking care of agriculture in the state of Delaware, the Kent County model. All we’ve got to do is look at it and see how we can overlay it into what we do here,” said Mr. Cole. “I just think as we go through this land-use thing where we are revising things, if we don’t have some clear definitions as we work on this land-use … we still have left a big hole in what zoning is here in the county.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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