Posts Tagged ‘Sussex County Board of Adjustment’

Time to make some decisions

October 13, 2010

We all know government moves at a snail’s pace, but some recent inaction by Sussex County makes snails look like rabbits.

County council has yet to hire a county planner, although the job has been posted. Insiders tell me the amount budgeted for the position, about $42,000, is not enough to attract a registered planner. In the meantime, the county is relying on a consultant from Urban Research and Development Corp. in Bethlehem, Pa. The county has been without a full-time planner since the retirement of Rick Kautz in May 2009.

Neighboring Kent County, which is smaller than Sussex County, has five certified planners with one vacant position. Sussex has nearly 40,000 more people and 300 square miles more than its northern neighbor.

Here’s another telling statistic from the U.S. Census: In 2009 Sussex issued 1,555 building permits, compared with 806 issued in Kent County. In addition, Sussex has more than 118,000 housing units, compared with 64,000 in Kent County.

Council President Vance Phillips is on the record saying hiring a planner is not a high priority under current economic conditions. Not everyone agrees with that opinion, including council members Joan Deaver and George Cole.

Council has also been dragging its feet on the appointment, or reappointment, of two members of the county board of adjustment. The terms of Dale Callaway of Milton and John Mills of Laurel ended June 30. Ironically, Callaway remains as chairman of the board.

Councilwoman Deaver has made it clear she will not renominate Callaway for the position, one he has held since 1992 (Mills was appointed the same year). Council shot down her first nominee, John Walsh of Rehoboth Beach, and a vote has never come up on her second nominee, former Lewes Police Chief Beau Gooch of Milton. The appointments have until now been low key and made without any discussion, but I don’t think that will be the case anymore.

Some residents are upset the board has an approval rate of more than 80 percent, and they want some new faces. These same residents want the board to follow its own rules and regulations and grant variances only when all criteria can be met. Board members admit that is not always the case.

One can only wonder why council is dragging its feet on these decisions, which are deemed critical in many circles. Could it have something to do with what happens the first Tuesday in November?

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The facts mam, just the facts

August 19, 2010

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.