September 3, 2003

The proposed 'brownfields' redevelopment ordinance breezed through a joint Planning Board and Department of Land Use hearing with apparent general agreement that it would be a good thing to make it relatively easy to move plans to rehabilitate derelict properties through the county's regulatory process.

Only one witness from the public spoke at the session on Sept. 2. Linda Bailey, of the Seven and Forty Alliance, a civic group in the Bear area, said she isn't opposed to the law, but urged planners to make sure they carefully consider the effect a proposal would have on traffic in the area.

"I would like to know where all the concerned citizen are. Why aren't they here?" said Charles Baker, general manager of the land use department, noting that the usual group of civic organization representatives were not present in the Redding Building chamber. It had been expected that, from their perspective, the proposed ordinance's provision to bypass formal public participation in the process of crafting a redevelopment plan would be controversial.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky, the ordinance's sponsor, expressed surprise that Bailey was the only one who responded to Planning Board chairman Victor Singer's invitation for public comment. "I thought other people were coming," Venezky said.

"They trust us to do the right thing," board member June MacArtor quipped.

Just to be safe from a later charge that it did not consider the public view in deciding on its recommendation to County Council, which has the final say on whether to enact the ordinance, the board voted to 'keep the record open' until just before its business session, when its recommendation will be determined.

Council could enact the ordinance as soon as its meeting on Sept. 23.

Baker agreed with Bailey that traffic volume "is the big issue" involved in the ordinance and, after some prodding by Singer, acknowledged that leaving it up to the Delaware Department of Transportation to determine, by its "transportation impact standards," if a developer should be required to undertake some traffic-mitigation steps was, indeed, a "relaxation" of the more restrictive county test involving rush-hour 'levels of service' at neighboring intersections.

That exchange came in the context of his and Venezky's contention that easing up on Unified Development Code provisions intended to govern development of previously undeveloped land was necessary to attract redevelopment of previously used and now run-down properties. "We are trying very hard to give inducements," Venezky said.

As Delaforum previously reported, the impetus for the new ordinance was that only six relatively small projects  have been advanced under provisions of the redevelopment ordinance enacted in April, 2002. The pending ordinance would modify the earlier one, which is now a section in the development code. As things stand now, she said, "we have something that isn't working."

Existing law applies to any redevelopment is which an older building is being replaced or having more than half its floor area replaced. The proposed one would apply only to 'brownfield' redevelopment. A 'brownfield' is defined as a property which the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has certified as have real or perceived environmental contamination.

The presence of such properties is more harmful to a surrounding community than the effects of having "deteriorated and deteriorating properties"  restored to active and productive purposes, she said.

To accomplish that, however, she said developers need incentives. "Redevelopment is more expensive than going out and developing pristine green fields," she said.

State and federal government policy also favors channeling development into older areas, she pointed out. The General Assembly this year enacted legislation which parallels federal law and limits liability for prospective purchasers of 'brownfields' who are not responsible for contamination and agree to a clean-up plan. The state also has other incentives to encourage 'Brownfield' redevelopment.

As previously reported, the proposed county ordinance waives impact fees, reduces landscaping requirements and allows commercial uses in industrially zoned areas. The key provision, however, is insertion of a single word -- 'major' -- in the section of the existing law requiring formal public participation during the exploratory phase of the land-use approval process.

A 'minor' plan thereby exempted from the process would be anything that did not add 20,000 square feet or more to the total building area there before redevelopment. For example, a building measuring 100,000 square feet could be torn down and replaced by one of equal or slightly larger size and it would still be considered a 'minor' project.

A 'minor' project is reviewed administratively within the land use department and is not subject to public hearings and approval by County Council.

Venezky testified that, although "the extensive, exhaustive public process would be reduced," the public would not be entirely shut out. The department will still receive public comment and incorporate it into its professional evaluation, she said.

2003. All rights reserved.

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