News

November 23, 2003

Places which everyone knows are there but which have no official status would be formally recognized as "unique and diverse" under terms of a significant but, until now, scarcely noticed ordinance pending before County Council.

Stopping well short of incorporation, the new section the ordinance would insert into the Universal Development Code would give Council the ability to create 'hometown overlays' granting communities which were around before the county had any zoning laws a large degree of control over future development and redevelopment.

The amendment is being presented as a way for them to keep their established identities apart from the general development pattern and appearance of suburbia.

"These communities are considered 'traditional' and, in most cases, predate the automobile with relatively dense neighborhoods with a variety of nonresidential uses and ample sidewalks to travel from place to place," the amendment notes. The development code, on the other hand, was enacted to govern present-day development within the suburban milieu and does not adequately recognize the characteristics of older areas nor their more appropriate development preference, it said.

"Current land use planning principles now tout this form of development as 'neotraditional' and 'new urbanism' as an alternative to suburban sprawl that has consumed land and taxed infrastructure," the amendment declares.

The enabling ordinance, introduced without comment at Council's Nov. 18 session by Councilman William Tansey, is an outgrowth of civic movements in Centreville, Hockessin and Claymont to come up with effective 'village' or 'main street' plans as revitalization tools. The proposed amendment indicates that the purpose of separate treatment for such communities is to allow for modification or replacement of existing properties to conform to past patterns, which are still extant or being reestablished.

Tansey. who represents Centreville and Hockessin, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment as this article was being prepared.

The ordinance will go first to the Planning Board and Department of Land Use, which will hold a joint public hearing in January prior to making recommendations to Council, which could enact it as soon as February.

When the draft of a Hockessin plan was introduced recently, Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, promised the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association the opportunity to give the plan the force of law after it was polished through a consultation process involving interested residents.

Councilman Robert Weiner, has long advocated a mechanism to tailor potentially conflicting sections of the development code to accommodate community 'design guidelines' which have been promulgated in initial form for the Claymont Renaissance, which he has spearheaded.

The proposed amendment specifically calls for use of such guidelines, a community plan or both to determine whether a proposed development is in keeping with the character and desires of the community. It declares that they would supercede conflicting sections of the development code. Other sections of the code, including existing zoning, would remain in force.

To qualify for designation as an overlaid area, a community would be required to produce a plan or guidelines. "At a minimum, [they] shall include a purpose, goals, description of the land uses, community character, architectural or design themes, streetscape and landscape concepts, transportation objectives, consideration for building envelope, mixed-use opportunities, [and] parking, loading and accessory uses," the amendment said.

"It should ... encourage maintaining the rhythm of the existing developed community by recognizing streetscape contexts involving building, scale, mass, door and window openings and spacing, building height, setbacks, materials, texture and relief of facades." The term 'streetscape' refers to the appearance of an urban area.

The amendment envisions provision for various combinations of residential, commercial, employment, recreational and institution uses in the overlaid area. It does not spell out how an area would be defined except to indicate that would be an expected element of the plan. The plan itself must have "broad-based support" achieved though an open process involving "diverse community interests and bona fide community groups."

The amendment provides for setting up advisory committee of between five and nine members in each area granted a 'hometown overlay' to judge development proposals against the guidelines or community plan.

Using a public participatory process, the committee would issue a recommendation to the land use department, which is designated as the professional collaborator and reviewer. The department would have final say about approving, modifying or rejecting the proposal, but would have to give "due consideration" -- in effect, substantial weight -- to the committee's recommendation. The relationship appears to mirror what presently exists between the department and the county Planning Board.

Members of the advisory committee would be drawn from among people recommended by "community representatives" and appointed by the county executive, upon nomination by the area's recognized civic organization and subject to ratification by County Council. Two members each would be drawn from among homeowners or renters and from among local businesses. Everyone on the committee would have to live in the community except for a registered architect or landscape architect.

The proposed amendment does not specify the terms of committee members other than providing for their removal for non-participation in committee meetings or other causes, including moving out of the community. Nor does it say whether committee members will be paid for their services.

The committee may recommend deviation from development code standards "to increase density, reduce landscaping, buffers or open-space area, reduce parking [space], decrease or increase building and paving setbacks, increase or decrease building heights and to alter sign standards." It cannot, however, get around preserving protect natural resources or historical protection.

The amendment would empower the land use department to initiate "proactive zoning" to bring properties into conformity with the community plan.

© 2003. All rights reserved.

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