Single-parcel rezoning for new Sussex County Family Court debated

By Glenn Rolfe
Posted 10/28/21

GEORGETOWN — There’s a tiny piece of the zoning puzzle missing in the plan for the new Sussex County Family Court.

And that application request from the state — to rezone a rectangular parcel at 115 E. Pine St. in downtown Georgetown from UB3 (professional business) to HD (historic) — is in the hands of the town’s mayor and council, which heard both support and some objection during a public hearing Wednesday.

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Single-parcel rezoning for new Sussex County Family Court debated

Posted

GEORGETOWN — There’s a tiny piece of the zoning puzzle missing in the plan for the new Sussex County Family Court.

And that application request from the state — to rezone a rectangular parcel at 115 E. Pine St. in downtown Georgetown from UB3 (professional business) to HD (historic) — is in the hands of the town’s mayor and council, which heard both support and some objection during a public hearing Wednesday.

Additional public comment regarding the rezoning will be accepted for two more weeks, with a vote scheduled Nov. 10.

At its Oct. 20 meeting, Georgetown’s Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the state’s request.

The rezoning would eliminate what is a spot-zoned, standalone parcel of UB3 zoning and bring the entire area under one uniform HD classification. Thus, the intent is to consolidate the East Pine Street parcel with 11 other nearby parcels, all currently zoned HD.

“The new Family Court building with the new consolidated rezoning will put all of these pieces into a single zoning district,” said attorney Vince Robertson, who presented the state’s case Wednesday along with Michael Newell, chief judge of Family Court for the state. “Before we go forward, … it just makes sense to clean this up now and get it all rezoned.”

At a projected 110,000 square feet, the new courthouse will more than triple the space of the present facility, a fixture on The Circle since 1988.

The current building was cited in a 2012 U.S. Marshals Service report for safety and security concerns both inside and outside. And a 2006 state study determined that the Family Courts in both Kent and Sussex counties were “inadequate,” the lowest rating.

“The current building just does not satisfy the needs of this community, the needs of our courts,” said Judge Newell.

Supported by $105 million in state funding, the new court, earmarked for an area bordering East Market, South Race and East Pine streets, will address issues of dignity, safety and size, he added.

“Our caseload has doubled since this building was built. We’ve added more jurisdiction,” said Judge Newell. In addition, “there is no separation for victims from their oppressors in our courthouse.”

Support for the court was shared by attorneys Ashley Bickel and Mark Hudson, both of whom work in the current facility.

Ms. Bickel shared several examples of cases that support the need for a larger, safer, more dignified facility.

“As a council, as a community, as human beings, we have to do better. We need to do whatever it takes to get this moving, … so people can have safety, dignity,” said Ms. Bickel, also president of the Sussex County Bar Association. “I feel confident in saying that the members of the Sussex County Bar Association want this courthouse on this site plan.”

Mr. Hudson agreed.

“I think that the need for a new courthouse is somewhat undisputed at this point. Given the nature of the building, it has outlived its purpose at this point,” he said, adding that the new construction will also support surrounding businesses.

The site was chosen from approximately 20, researched in a two-year feasibility study.

In addition to Family Court, Judge Newell said the facility will serve as a “justice center,” housing the Justice of the Peace, administrative offices, the child advocate division and the Department of Justice.

In response to a parking study commissioned by the state, a six-level garage bordering East Pine Street also is proposed. It will accommodate 420 vehicles, Mr. Robertson said.

However, the multilevel garage — and the rezoning required for it — is of concern to Diane Rogers and Robert Lingo, residents of an adjacent property at 119 E. Pine St.

In a letter to mayor and council, Mr. Lingo requested that they “refuse the rezoning change from UB3 to HD. I cannot wrap my head around a 60 foot wall being one foot from my home or even with setbacks, seeing it extend down my property line. My home will be a ruin because of a six level parking garage.”

Ms. Rogers concurred that a new courthouse is needed, and she said she understands the lawyers’ point of view.

“But this is a resident’s point of view. Being at 119 (E. Pine St.), I am just on the other side of that … block. I can only see, when this changes, this six-level garage, (and) I am sure no one here has adjoining property,” Ms. Rogers said. “We’ll be able (to) lift our window up and actually touch that six-story garage. This is a resident’s point of view. I love this town. I was born and raised here. I certainly want the courthouse. It’s just the garage that we have our problems with.”

The support for rezoning also included correspondence from attorney William Schab.
“I am 100% in favor of the state’s plans for the new family court property, and I ask that the present application be approved,” Mr. Schab stated. “If the plans were denied and the family court moved from the town, the town and all of its residents, businesses, and property owners would suffer greatly.”

With approval of the rezoning request and barring any major roadblocks, groundbreaking is slated for February or March 2022. Construction is expected to take about 24 months.

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