The facts mam, just the facts

A recent workshop meeting between Sussex County Council and the county’s board of adjustment was informative if nothing else.

The board of adjustment, which meets twice a month to settle disputes over setback violations and special-use exceptions, has come under fire recently for approving too many applications. It’s odd that the board is being questioned now because its approval rate has held steady at about 85 percent since it was formed by state law in 1973.

During the workshop, board members admitted they violate their own mandate when making many of their decisions. Variances must meet five standards, yet the majority fails to make the grade and are approved anyway. Why is this?

Over the years, the board has been given direction, either directly or by no one on council complaining, to go easy on applicants. So it has. Most decisions are based on emotion rather than the strict standards of the regulations.

That’s wrong, but many people would have made the same decisions given the same facts the board hears. One of the most violated standards is one that states the applicant cannot create the reason for a variance. What a lot of people don’t realize is the “applicant” is responsible for what the builder does.

The two county governing bodies have come up with some possible changes and updates to make the board work a little more efficiently and possibly change some of what the board rules on. Changes won’t be easy because most will need to go through the Delaware General Assembly.

Board attorney Richard Berl said it’s not fair to judge the board on statistics alone because it’s not always black and white – there is a lot of gray area during board meetings. Denials and approvals have both ended up in court on appeal. He also said if the board stuck to its guns and the five standards, most variances would be denied. He asked the council if it was willing to stand behind the decisions, take the criticism and handle the phone calls. “They’ll be knocking on your door,” he said.

In other words, it’s hard to tell someone who has built a house two feet over the setback to tear part of it down.

I’ve attended several board of adjustment meetings over the years and have seen what the board has to deal with. Many applicants are not prepared and can’t even answer basic questions. For the pleasure of being embarrassed they pay a $400 application fee. But that’s not justification for what is going on. No one is disputing the board has a tough job, but the time has come for the board to move closer to making decisions based on the standards instead of the heart.


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One Response to “The facts mam, just the facts”

  1. John Walsh Says:

    To read in the Board of Adjustment Memo that “frequently” the Board has to deal with situations brought about by errors and/or misinformation by County employees and that variances are then usually granted to protect the County is an indictment not only of the Board of Adjustment, but County government itself.

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