November 7, 2001

Although a small parade of witnesses at its public hearing heartedly endorsed the proposed redevelopment ordinance, members of the county Planning Board indicated that they are likely to heed the advice of an objector and not rush to judgment.

"More work is necessary; a few days isn't going to do it," chairman Vic Singer said after Philip Lavelle, of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, called for allowing civic leaders and the public time to digest the implications of the amendments the ordinance would make to the Unified Development Code.

Singer said he had difficulty understanding the synopses of the various provisions in the draft of the ordinance which the Department of Land Use had circulated, let alone the legalese in the which the amendments themselves are couched.

Consensus at the conclusion of the hearing on Nov. 6 was that board will not be ready to make a recommendation at its next business meeting, two weeks hence, on whether County Council should move to enact the measure. Lavelle suggested that the board table the issue for at least two months.

The board, however, heard strong support for the measure from a dozen witnesses representing a variety of interests. They maintained that the amendments will go a long way toward correcting what has been perceived as a shortcoming of the development code enacted nearly four years ago: In establishing stringent requirements for new development, it has all but blocked the opportunity for significant redevelopment of older properties.

"Only those with deep pockets can afford to go through the costly and uncertain Board of Adjustment process to get the myriad of variances necessary to redevelop parcels in New Castle County," Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a development industry trade organization.

She called the ordinance "the most positive proposal since passage of the U.D.C."

Charles Baker, general manager of the land use department, said it is not uncommon for a property owner to have to seek variances to cover 12 to 14 pre-existing conditions which do not meet present-day code standards. Some do not even meet previous codes. The ordinance proposes to circumvent that by compromising the entire package to get some measurable improvements to the property.

Using a system termed 'proportional compliance', a property owner would be granted percentage credits for making improvements deemed most important after a public hearing at the start of the process. If the credits add up to 100% and other conditions, such as environmental regulations, are met, the project could go forward. Bringing provision for parking up to 40% of code requirements, landscaping up to 40% and stormwater drainage to 20%, for instance, would total 100%. Nothing would prohibit a from accumulating a higher total by agreeing to make other improvements.

Council president Christopher Coons, one of the legislative sponsors of the measure, said that system provides property owners, developers and the affected community  "the opportunity to engage in a negotiation process that eventually results in improvement of the site."

Agreeing that the method is novel, Coons said that the thinking behind it is that "any substantial improvement is a positive thing" and the way that is done be modified after a year or so if it isn't working out the way that is intended.

The biggest question raised in that connection was the likely arbitrary nature of the calculations and the latitude given the land use department in determining whether a specific project complies. Any project that did not involve an expansion of more than 20,000 square feet -- regardless of the size of the existing building -- would be treated as a minor project and not subject to County Council approval. Presumably, most redevelopment projects fall into that category.

Baker said that is not so much a matter of eliminating Council oversight as it is a way "to put the community and the county in a stronger position in negotiating improvements." Neither side will be in a position to have Council at the last minute upset what is achieved through those negotiations.

He pointed out that the code presently permits a property owner to make any changes to an existing structure or to rebuild up to half of it without complying with the development code.

Proposed changes in the code, he added, are meant to induce property owners or other would-be redevelopers to work with the neighboring community to remedy shortcomings by giving them a more open and less expensive path through the approval process. That, he added, would apply only where it is obvious that it is impossible to fully meet code standards.

"We're not providing exemptions for anything that can be developed in compliance with the U.D.C.," he said.

By making it difficult and in some cases prohibitively expensive to redevelop, the code "has induced the kind of urban sprawl it was meant to inhibit," Jay Cooperson, an architect, testified.

Herb Inden, of the Office of State Planning Coordination, said that anything which furthers redevelopment dovetails Governor Ruth Ann Minner's 'Livable Delaware' initiative. Pat Todd, of the League of Women Voters of New Castle County, said the proposed county ordinance would work well in conjunction with state tax credits for redevelopment "and should alleviate abandoned or inefficiently-used land in a more orderly time sequence."

George Lossť, chairman of the Claymont Community Coalition, said that the ordinance would be welcomed by his community because "the U.D.C. is a great thing, but it doesn't fit into some areas in Claymont." That community is engaged in a county-supported 'renaissance' project which seeks to put older buildings along Philadelphia Pike to constructive new uses.

Coons said the proposed ordinance was put together "in a long, deliberative, open process" by a taskforce representing a wide range of community and business interests. Lavelle disputed that, pointing out that there was no public disclosure of the taskforce's existence and that, although he is active in and keeps in close touch with civic affairs, he was unaware of the ordinance's significance before reading a newspaper account a day before the hearing.

Baker said that the process followed in developing the ordinance was to "hammer out the details" by a representative group and then "going public" to get broader public participation. He noted that Daniel Bockover, president of the Brandywine Council, of which Lavelle is zoning committee chairman, was one of the umbrella civic group members of the taskforce.

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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