June 17, 2003

Discussed, changed and fine-tuned for almost a year, a sweeping set of amendments to New Castle County's Unified Development Code, which mandate that environmental considerations be an integral part of designing large suburban developments, appear certain to be enacted before County Council takes its summer recess.

After the Planning Board voted unanimously on June 17 to recommend passage of the amending ordinance, Councilwoman Karen Venezky, its sponsor, predicted that Council also will act without dissent. "I certainly hope so [because of] all the good that it does for the county," she said. A vote could occur as soon as July 8.

Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, told the Planning Board that quick passage is desirable. Any delay "would be a concern to the department [because] we're trying to massage [development] plans that are in process right now," he said.

The timetable was nearly upset when board members Joseph Maloney and Fritz Griesinger attempted to table consideration of the ordinance until the board's July business meeting. If that were done, Baker said, it would mean at least a two-month delay in final passage. Council does not meet during the month of August.

Maloney objected to the board's having been presented as it was convening with a list of nine changes the department had made in the ordinance following a public hearing on June 3. Griesinger was miffed because he had not received a response to an e.mail he had sent to the department just after the hearing, posing several questions about details of the draft ordinance.

After a series of parliamentary motions, Maloney agreed to withdraw his tabling motion after Baker and George Haggerty, assistant general manager, explained that only two of the changes were substantive. One limited application of the new standards to developments of 50 acres of more and prohibited subdividing such tracts to bring them under that threshold. The other specifically stated that land designated as a natural resources conservation area within developments could not be developed in the future.

Haggerty went beyond that to say that the ordinance is designed to apply only to new developments and there is no intention to require retrofitting of existing ones. "This is all about going forward; this is not about going back," he said.

Maloney said he did not want to hold the ordinance hostage to another issue -- an allegation that board decisions are made difficult by last-minute receipt of additional material from the land use department.  Griesinger, however, would not withdraw his seconding the tabling motion, forcing the full board to vote down the idea of tabling.

Baker and Haggerty then went on to respond to each of the questions that Griesinger had asked -- evidently to his satisfaction, judging by his ultimately voting in favor of recommending Council approval.

In an unusually long draft recommendation to County Council, based on its  position concerning the matter, the department gave the ordinance an unqualified professional endorsement.

"This ordinance provides a density-neutral approach for a fair and equitable way to balance conservation and development objectives," the statement said.

"Growth is inevitable, but by contributing to development plans early in the process, the 'environment first' ordinance will not only avoid the potential degradation of New Castle County's environmental resources, it will also help to control escalating financial and social costs that often accompany growth."

It went on to say there is no need for further public hearings and redrafting. Baker told the board there had been 43 meetings with developers, engineers, conservation groups, community activists and other interested parties. There also was a series of sessions with a public advisory group formed by the department.

The draft described the proposed ordinance as "the first major implementation" of the county's comprehensive plan since the latest version was approved in 2002.

Haggerty later noted that environmental protection remains a proverbial 'work in progress'. "Don't think this is the end to the debate over open space. This is just the next step," he said.

Addressing what appears to be the most significant open issue with the draft ordinance, the draft recommendation said that provisions to allow third-party organizations -- mostly conservation-oriented groups -- to own and manage protected natural resource open space were intended as an option to assigning that responsibility exclusively to community maintenance organizations or having county government assume it.

Turning to outside organizations :"is not a requirement, but another alternative offered to potentially enhance and assure that natural resource areas are maintained in accordance with [an] open-space management plan," the recommendation said. Baker later explained that use of conservancies is expected to be rare. It will make sense in some cases, he said, to turn to "a group that has experience [managing natural areas] instead of a [community] maintenance organization that has no experience."

Planning Board chairman Victor Singer took up that point, saying that the role of county government should be limited to "picking up the refrigerators and washers" which, inevitably, will be dumped there from time to time and not to incorporate the natural areas into the county parks system. The public, he said, would tend to demand that if those areas were county owned and managed.

"It's not a park; it's natural open space. Whatever grows there is what nature wants to grow there," Singer said.

2003. All rights reserved.

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