December 17, 2001

A proposed ordinance intended make it easier to redevelop older properties -- particularly commercial ones -- is being redrafted and will be subjected to further public consideration before going before New Castle County Council.

Councilman Robert Weiner, who is cosponsoring the measure with Council president Christopher Coons and Councilwoman Karen Venezky, said the purpose of the rewrite is to "remove the perception of unfettered discretion" on the part of the Department of Land Use when dealing with applications under what would be a new provision in the Unified Development Code.

It also is to be made "more user friendly," he added.

The county Planning Board had been expected to make its formal recommendation concerning the measure at its Dec. 18 business meeting, but has agreed to table the matter and to hold another public hearing, probably on Jan. 10, on a substitute ordinance.

As Delaforum previously reported, the ordinance would significantly liberalize requirements under the development code. As it stands now, rebuilding or improving more than half of an old property brings it under the purview of requirements meant to govern new building. In some cases that is literally not possible and in most cases doing so would be prohibitively expensive.

The alternative which has been used in the few instances that have come up since the development code was enacted have required seeking multiple adjustments through a process which is time-consuming, expensive and uncertain. The adjustment process frequently turns out to be an adversarial one, pitting community against developer.

The proposed amendments would, in effect, institutionalize within the subdivision approval process a system of tradeoffs. An applicant would be required to come part way up to standard in several respects. Redevelopment would be approved if the sum of the proportions met, expressed as percentages, equaled at least 100. If, for instance, drainage is brought up to 60% of what would be required for new development and 20% each of parking and landscaping standards are met, that would total the requisite 100.

Key to the whole thing, Weiner said, is that the specific formulas would be determined with extensive community 'input' in conjunction with land-use professionals. The process would start with a public meeting at which property owners and community residents will catalogue the shortcomings of the subject property. They then would work out a mutually acceptable agreement based largely on what was established to be priorities.

That having been done to all parties' presumed satisfaction, the application would then be put on an accelerated course through the subdivision approval process.

If the project involved construction of less than 20,000 square feet, it would be handled as a minor subdivision and approval would be primarily administrative. The proposal would go before County Council for final approval only if it were larger.

Weiner said up-front community review and its pivotal role in shaping the application's final form should offset any concern that the land-use professionals would be arbitrary or biased in favor of  development interests. 

Nevertheless, that had been the most significant objection. Although Philip Lavelle, zoning chairman of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, was the only one to testify against the measure at a Planning Board public hearing on Nov. 6, Weiner said he has since heard similar concerns from other umbrella civic organizations.

The definition of what is minor and what is major will likely remain unchanged, but the Department of Land Use's position as a partner in, rather an ultimate judge of, the process will be better defined.

Victor Singer, chairman of the Planning Board, and others at the hearing also complained that the language in the proposed ordinance was confusing and difficult to follow. The rewrite, Weiner said, will clarify those points.

Resubmitting the issue to another hearing at that level and subsequent review by Council will provide time to increase public awareness of the issue. Lavelle had complained that there had been insufficient time for review of an obviously significant change in the law before the first hearing.

Weiner said that the purpose of the ordinance is not to subvert the development code and its strict requirements but to provide a mechanism for encouraging redevelopment in areas with existing infrastructure and a history of commercial presence.

2001. All rights reserved.

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