Letter to the Editor: Interpreting county code is part of planning and zoning panel’s responsibilities

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Editor’s note: The following was sent to the members of the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission.

I believe your office has a responsibility to interpret the county code and regulations as they impact matters that are within your jurisdiction. In addition, as a public official, you have a duty to take actions that are for the betterment of the residents of Sussex County.

As a result, I was greatly disturbed by reading of an exchange at a recent meeting where Commissioner Keller Hopkins said assistant county attorney Vince Robertson should state prior to public hearings that planning and zoning commissioners do not make the rules and must follow those rules, adding that people think planning & zoning has more discretion on subdivisions.

I respectfully disagree.

You do not have a right to make up your own rules, but you do have the right and, indeed, obligation to interpret them, especially when they are not clear and, therefore, subject to interpretation. If you do not fulfill this responsibility, then you cede this authority to the developers and their attorneys, who are not charged with that responsibility and certainly are not charged to act in the public’s interest. If you do not have the authority to interpret the applicable legal provisions, then the whole process can be relegated to a computer that can check off each criterion the developer says was met.

Your purpose must be more than that.

I’ll cite an example for you. In 2019, when the proposal to develop what is now known as Coral Lakes was submitted, the subdivision application was for 180 homes. The parcel was identified as having some 30 acres of wetlands on the 152-acre site. Later, the Schell Brothers proposed building 304 houses for that subdivision, and the same parcel was identified as having 4.87 acres of wetlands. The most recent packet (GMB No. 21-127.00) said that “the site is approximately 152.34 acres, of which roughly 76.31 acres are non-tidal forested wetlands.” That’s approximately one-half of the entire site, according to the builder. Did the builder meet the requirement to avoid building on wetlands or preserving forest to the greatest extent possible? You must determine that. It is your responsibility to evaluate developers’ proposals, not simply accept their assessment.

I have heard that landowners, which include millionaire builders who purchase 152 acres of mature woodland, have a “right” to build on “their” land. That right, however, is to be balanced against the right of the residents of Sussex County to expect that their elected officials will evaluate building plans, ask probing questions and approve those that are reasonable given the impact on the community and are responsible in the way in which the building occurs. It is not, for example, one that requires 13 water-retention ponds by building on filled-in wetlands, adversely impacting groundwater levels and decimating wildlife habitat by bulldozing 110 acres of mature forest.

You, the Planning & Zoning Commission, made the right decision. The County Council remanded the Coral Lakes decision to provide and make clear the reasons for denying the application; it did not require that you redo the entire decision anew and come up with a different result. In fact, even the need to remand for that purpose was on a split vote.

There are plenty of reasons in the record for your vote. Some, maybe many, are the same reasons that the state designated this area as Investment (SIL) Level 4, where “development is strongly discouraged” and “investment ... will be the highest priority for open-space preservation; restoration for water quality and for wildlife; grants for parks acquisition and development; greenways and trails grants.” An expansive new housing development that jeopardizes groundwater management and quality and destroys one of the few (and growing fewer) areas for wildlife is not consistent with local or state guidelines for development.

Again, you, the Planning & Zoning officials, have a responsibility to interpret the county code and regulations governing development to effect their intent and in a way that fulfills the county’s obligation to operate in the best way possible for the health, welfare and safety of all Sussex County existing residents.

Judith S. Bresler

Lewes