January 29, 2002

The New Castle County Planning Board will recommend that County Council enact an ordinance which is expected to make it easier to redevelop older commercial properties. Council action could come as early as one of its February meetings.

The independent board acted at its Jan. 29 business meeting on the latest revision of the ordinance introduced by Council president Christopher Coons and Council members Karen Venezky and Robert Weiner with the understanding that the measure will undergo some more minor changes before the Department of Land Use submits it to Council. Charles Baker, general manager of the department, said none of those changes will be substantive.

Voting 8-1 to accept the department's recommendation, board members indicated agreement with chairman Victor Singer's observation that the landmark Unified Development Code continues to need refinement. "Everybody is agreed it is not perfect," Singer said, adding that each modification to improve it  is "a move in the right direction/"

The ordinance amends the development code by adding a section to the part of the code dealing with nonconforming buildings and situations.

In essence, that sets forth a procedure by which properties which were in compliance with county regulations when built or were built before the county adopted zoning and land-use regulations could be replaced or expanded without having to comply with the more restrictive present code or having to acquire variances from provisions not met.

Board member David Tackett cast the only negative vote, saying that he did not disagree with the thrust of the ordinance but would have preferred to see it contain a so-called 'sunset provision'. That term means a law automatically expires, unless renewed, at the end of a stated period. Tackett suggested that be three years. There is a provision in the ordinance which requires the land use department to report annually to Council on "the use and effectiveness" of the redevelopment provisions during the first three years that it is in force. Council would have the power to modify or repeal it if so desired.

Baker told the board that he does not expect the ordinance to open the gates to a flood of redevelopment applications. He said there are only about two or three proposals submitted to the department in the course of a year which would come under the new provisions. "If that goes up to four or five a year, I would call it a rousing success," he said.

He also said that the purpose of the ordinance is not to enhance the economic viability of redevelopment projects. That, he said, would be up to property owners and developers to determine.

The department's recommendation indicated, however, that it is expected to provide an alternative to having older properties deteriorate and become blighted. The idea is that it is better to have them partially meet the present code requirements than to let that happen.

"Nothing in the [present] law requires that [the owner] do anything. ... This brings applicability of the [development code] to parcels that are already developed and in use," Singer said.

Rationale for enacting the ordinance is contained in its synopsis:

"Redevelopment makes efficient use of existing infrastructure and provides an attractive alternative to development of undeveloped areas. This amendment provides incentives to property owners to redevelop older, unmarketable, run-down, legally nonconforming non-residential sites, while encouraging extensive public input into the process to identify the nonconforming design elements most likely to provide improvements determined to to be the most desireable."

Nothing in the proposed code change would prevent redevelopment of an existing site in full conformity with the Unified Development Code.

The key provision of the ordinance is that a would-be redeveloper would be credited for binging the property more closely into compliance in regard to such things as setbacks, buffer zones, parking, landscaping, stormwater management and the like. Each would be measured by percentage of compliance and the percentages totaled as an indication of overall improvement.

As now written, that total would have to be at least 400. Since no single area of improvement could produce a total higher than 100, there would have to be improvements in at least four areas. The original version of the ordinance would have required the percentages to total at least 100.

Envisioned is a process by which the community would negotiate the extent of improvements with the prospective developer. The ordinance provides that the process begin with a public hearing before the planning board.

"If you involve the public [in] the first proceeding, you are never going to get to the final proceeding. They will oppose it," board member Joseph Maloney said. Baker disagreed, saying that, in practice developers and community representatives would necessarily seek to resolve difference and reach agreement before the public hearing.

Key to that, he added, is the fact the ordinance "has noting to do with nonconforming uses [but] just the design elements."

The revised draft retains a provision that the project be considered minor if it involves an expansion of less than 20,000 square feet. Larger projects would be classified as major, requiring County Council to give final approval.

2002. All rights reserved.

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