Open up site-plan reviews

There is a major flaw, as I see it anyway, in Sussex County’s zoning-change application process.

After a zoning change is approved, the proposed project proceeds to the site-plan review stage conducted by planning and zoning commissioners – without public input. Although the review is conducted during a public meeting, no one from the public can speak.

It doesn’t seem fair that a zoning change can be granted with public hearings while the site-plan review takes place without any public comment at all.

Although the zoning-change process is important, the actual ins and outs of a site plan are equally important. It’s left to the discretion of the planning and zoning commissioners. County council does not even get involved other than to act on the zoning-change request.

So here is where it gets a little weird. During the hearings, county officials are told time and time again to judge the application on the merits of zoning only – not the project. They must apply county code to the request for a zoning change only. Yet, for every zoning-change application I can recall, details of the project are discussed.

Take the denied Townsend Village Centre project for example. Although the application was for a zoning change from AR-1 to CR-1, just about every comment made during 10 hours of testimony at two hearings involved the merits of the shopping center – not if CR-1 zoning was acceptable for the parcel along Kings Highway.

To get the process centered and fair for all, a change to allow public input on site reviews needs to be instituted. It would add another layer and public hearing to the system, but if conducted in the proper way, this change would allow those who are affected by a project a chance to have a say in what that project looks like.



One Response to “Open up site-plan reviews”

  1. Sandy Spence Says:

    Great point! The whole process needs review. In addition, it is very unfortunate that the public never gets an opportunity to comment even on the zoning change until a project has been under consideration for months. It’s fewer months now due to the economy, but used to be as many as 18. The state’s Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) review happens very early, soon after the application is submitted to the county. But the public is not allowed to comment at part of that process — if they even find out about it.

    So the developer spends thousands of dollars preparing maps and other materials, engineering info, responding to state agency comments, etc., only to find out very late in the process what kind of comments the public may have.

    A good example is the recent P&Z rejection of the Diamond State Land Trust’s New Horizons project in Laurel for moderate income, working people. The non-profit Land Trust has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing this project, only to have it rejected by P&Z. The only P&Z commissioner who supported it indicated that he had reviewed the public comments carefully and had concluded that the very well organized opposition was based on NIMBYism [Not in My Back Yard].

    The other commissioners found excuses to reject the project.

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