November 3, 2001

Much of the hassle involved in redeveloping older properties will be removed if New Castle County Council passes an ordinance now under review by the Department of Land Use.

Intent of the proposed law, according to department general manager Charles Baker, is to encourage redevelopment by liberalizing some provisions of the Unified Development Code when applied to such projects.

As things now stand, redeveloping an older site requires that it be brought up to meet all the standards that are now applied to new development if half or more of the existing structure is replaced. Since those structures predate the four-year-old code, often by many years, retrofitting becomes prohibitively expensive and, in some cases, such as meeting required setbacks, literally impossible.

The only path now open requires the property owner to seek numerous variances from the code though a time-consuming and expensive process with the likelihood that not all the adjustments necessary to make the project viable will be granted.

"The U.D.C. was intended to be a strong code and we find that it is working pretty well with greenfields (new) development. But it doesn't work so well with brownfields (redevelopment)," Baker said.

At the same time, county policy is directed toward reducing so-called sprawl and directing growth into areas where there is existing infrastructure. There also is a strong interest in many older suburban areas in encouraging constructive redevelopment of properties that have become eyesores.

There is nothing in the code which prohibits a property owner from making improvements that do not involve structural replacements. Nor is there anything in the pending ordinance that would waive environmental or other requirements having to do with public health and safety.

Baker said he would expect most of the redevelopment that will occur to involve properties designated for commercial use. He said he is unable to estimate how extensively he new provisions would be used. While there have been very few redevelopment proposals to come before the planning and adjustment boards and the department since the code went into effect, there is no telling how many potential projects were not pursued because of the restrictive nature of the applicable provisions of the code.

Changing the approach to redevelopment will, in many cases, requires a blending of community and business interests, he explained.

The ordinance, which takes the form of amendments to the development code, was drafted by a taskforce of representatives of both sectors and introduced on Oct. 9 under the sponsorship of Council president Christopher Coons, Councilwoman Karen Venezky and Councilman Robert Weiner. With wide support it could become law shortly before or soon after the turn of the year.

In essence, it provides a mechanism for reaching a compromise between the strict requirements of the development code and doing nothing. "In effect, what we are saying is that we're willing to settle for some improvements if it's impossible to get everything the code [otherwise would] require," Baker acknowledged.

The process will start with a public meeting at which property owners and community residents will catalogue the shortcomings of the subject property. The result of the session will be a calculation of improvements toward meeting code standards which, taken together, total 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%.

Baker acknowledges that coming up with and applying such a formula could become sticky. Neighbors seeking to oppose the project because of past disputes with the property owner, for instance, might dispute multiple points. The ultimate determination of what would be an acceptable formula would, therefore, depend on the judgment of professionals in the land use department.

"We're going to be looking to issues of substance," he said. At the same time, providing for public participation at the beginning of the process will establish an acceptable course for the developer to follow from the beginning of the design and engineering phases. The present process requires producing a complete plan which is potentially subject to several changes.

A streamlined process and the expectation that those most closely affected by the proposed projects will be inclined toward accepting reasonable compromises in return for seeing some improvements made to the property are expected to make the process work, Baker said.

He denied that the proposed ordinance represents any watering down of the development code. "Right now there is something of a barrier to redevelopment in the code. If we remove that, the code is going to keep on doing all the good things that it's doing," he said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read related story: Chamber of commerce backs the approach
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