Councilman Burton spurs action on density, buffer issues in Sussex

GEORGETOWN – When it comes to simmering topics of density and buffers, first-term Sussex County Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton, R-Lewes, says it’s time to do more than talk.

“It’s been something for the 11 years I served on planning and zoning, we always discussed it,” said Mr. Burton during a 40-minute presentation at council’s June 12 meeting. “It was just talked about. It was in our previous comp plan that said we should look at buffers and density. It’s in the current comp plant that we should discuss buffers and density. It is in the current draft plan of the future comp plan. It is time to talk about it. It’s time to quite not talking about it.”

Sussex County Councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton shares his concerns about current density and buffer ordinances with county council members.

One week later, Mr. Burton announced at the June 19 council session he is ready to take the bull by the horns and move forward. With expertise and assistance from the county legal staff, he plans to formulate an ordinance draft pertaining to density for introduction.

“My feedback from you all was that a density calculation was OK – not agreed upon – but it should move to ordinance writing. I would like to do that. I’d like to take the charge on writing an ordinance for introduction of which it would then receive public hearings both at planning and zoning and at county council. So, I would like to move forward with that,” said Mr. Burton.

His concerns and issues with buffers are in the hands of Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson, who is contacting experts to set up an educational presentation before county council.

“As it pertains to the other two ordinances as they both involve buffers, I believe that our agreement was that we were going to receive professional input from various experts in the field as the discussion that we had relates to possible zoning ordinance,” said Mr. Burton. “I’m going to leave that in the hands of the county administrator which I think has reached out to several experts and has a possibility of an early July discussion. I would like to move forward with the ordinance writing on the density calculation and I would like for the county administrator to move forward on setting the agenda for expert testimony on the buffer education process.”

The main sticking point with density has to do with math. Mr. Burton says it doesn’t add up.

Since establishment of county zoning nearly five decades ago, total acreage – including wetlands which are unbuildable – is calculated in computing density of residential zoned districts.

Generally speaking, under county zoning two building units are permitted per acre.

“Two units-to-the-acre density calculation is, I think, a generous density. And then to allow that density to be counted for lands that are unbuildable, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Mr. Burton. “We’re talking about building homes or commercial … we allow the calculation of that density to include ponds, wetlands, man-made streams, whatever is on the property. I’ve got a tough time with that math formula.”

Councilman George Cole, who in his 31-plus years on council has supported lower density, believes he knows how the issue now confronting the county took root.

“My guess is a lot of it started prior to when wetlands were important. Back then we didn’t address wetlands,” said Mr. Cole, R-Ocean View. “I think what has happened is rules came along and we didn’t change our rules. We didn’t adapt to the changes. You can’t really develop those wetlands.”

“We have been very generous using density calculations. I’ve argued it for years, but it fell on deaf ears. It’s a good time to look at it,” said Mr. Cole in agreeing with Mr. Burton. “You are concerned about it. I am concerned about it. We’re permitting too much to be jammed in on these small parcels in our most environmentally sensitive areas.”

“I think common sense would dictate that you should consider ‘buildable’ as part of the equation,” said councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford. “Ultimately, that is what you are focused on is the building land. I think density is an important conversation.”

Mr. Arlett does have concerns. His main concern is: Who determines “wetlands” and how are they determined?

Janelle Cornwell, the county’s planning and zoning director, said licensed soil scientists determine and delineate wetlands, employing state and federal guidelines.

That raised a question from Mr. Arlett.

“I think we ought to get more confirmation on that and I will tell you why. If we are giving up property rights, a decision-making process by another entity that exists out there by that being controlled by some other method, we’re giving up our authority on property rights at a local level,” said Mr. Arlett. “Who determines their process? And if it is a political one, again that would concern me. Because we all know sometimes in Washington, the movement of EPA as an example, changes are based on the tide of the flavor of the administration that is there.”

“We do rely on any number of agencies,” Mr. Cole interjected.

“Certainly, I think the conversation is one that we need to have,” said council president Michael Vincent, R-Seaford. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you calculate some things could can’t build on.”

Buffer beef

Mr. Burton’s beef with the current county buffer ordinance is that it is outdated, out of whack and needs to be reviewed and in some cases increased.

“I just think we have to look at what buffers do for us from an environmental standpoint, from a quality of life standpoint, a water quality standpoint, from a flooding standpoint. You have to say, ‘Does our current code add or subtract from those goals?’” Mr. Burton said. “I think it is worthy of a discussion.”

Mr. Burton shared a buffer ordinance comparison of Delaware’s three counties as well as New Jersey and certain areas of Maryland at the June 12 meeting.

The chart showed that New Castle and Kent counties have a 100-foot buffer for tidal wetlands and buffers of 25 feet and 50 feet for non-tidal wetlands.

In comparison, Sussex County’s tidal wetlands buffer is 50 feet, with zero buffer for non-tidal wetlands.

“On the non-tidal, Sussex County is at zero; headwaters zero. In comparison we aren’t at the same of our other two counties. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. It’s pretty glaring that we are not a little bit off, we’re a lot off,” said Mr. Burton. “Does 100 feet work for everything? No. Should a stream be different? Probably. I just think we have to look at this thing with eyes wide open, and what is happening to our protected waterways or protected wetlands. We just can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect a different result. That’s the frustration. We sit here and have this concern and then nothing changes.”

“I agree with you. We need to be looking at things differently,” said Mr. Cole. “We’ll still have development. Prices will go up with more protection for the environment. As a realtor I have seen property values go up when you can show and prove there are these protections.”

“We are getting the density for the wetlands and then we have very little buffer and put as much as you can on that site,” said Mr. Burton. “I just can’t see where that makes good sense if we are trying to protect our waterways, and we are trying to protect our natural vegetation, trying to protect our landscaped areas. “

“What I am really looking at here is to try and maintain the rural character of this county,” said Mr. Burton.

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

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