October 7, 2002

There will be no hasty movement to enact a conservation design ordinance which would require developers and builders to take an environmentally sensitive approach when planning new subdivisions, according to Charles Baker, general manager of the New Castle County Department of Land Use. He foresees, at a minimum, a three-month process which will include public hearings and plenty of open discussion.

That got started on Oct. 7 with the first of a series of open advisory meetings bringing together developers, persons in supporting businesses and community representatives -- groups which previously had been consulted in private sessions.. And, as might be expected, a prominent part of the discussion centered on how the management of environmentally-protected open space in new major subdivisions will be financed.

"The development community is willing to provide the land. We don't support footing the cost of doing so," said Rick Woodin, president of Home Builders Association of Delaware.

Noting that the county's Unified Development Code "had unanticipated effects on the economy of the county," Mark Bowen, of Duffield Associates, an engineering consulting firm, cautioned proponents of imposing environmentally sensitive requirements on land development to carefully weigh the benefits against cost.

"We can all help pay for it through our taxes," said Marion Stewart, of the Civic League for New Castle County.

George Haggerty, assistant general manager, told the meeting that the land use department is open to hearing a variety of opinions and ideas as it makes what he described as "a fresh start" at drafting proposed amendments to the development code.

The only thing that is not negotiable, Baker told Delaforum during an earlier interview, is the basic concept intended to shape the proposed changes.. Knowledgeable observers believe the ordinance which emerges will result in the most significant changes since the comprehensive code was adopted nearly five years ago.

Baker said that the purpose for wanting to change the law is to establish a way to return cleaner water to streams and more of it to the underground aquifer. "What we're trying to accomplish is to treat our water in a more natural way," he said.

At present, the code requires that stormwater runoff from developed parcels be collected in basins designed to release it gradually, instead of in a rush, to streams, primarily to prevent flooding. But, Baker pointed out, that means that not only water but also contaminants such as oil residue from parking lots and chemical fertilizers and pesticides from lawns are washed into the streams. Using natural channels to carry the water will course it through such natural filters as vegetation as well as allow as much as a third of it to be absorbed into the ground..

While developing the updated comprehensive plan last year, the department found that 86% of the streams in New Castle County are polluted beyond the limits which make them unsafe for fishing or swimming. Nationally, he said, the average is 59%.

Requiring developers of major projects, mainly residential but also commercial, to design them in a way that provides for nature to do its thing will significantly improve that situation, conservationist and environmentalists agree.

As Delaforum first reported, the mechanism would be to mandate designs which provide for setting aside, in most cases, more open space than is now required and designating some of it as 'natural resource areas' which would be permanently kept in a natural state or as nearly so as possible. The rest of the open space would be for active or passive recreation. A major development is one which has 50 or more building units or comprises 50 acres.

The development code now requires that at least 30% to 50% of the developed area, depending on the type of development,  be deeded to community-based maintenance associations as common areas. The average that that is actually so designated is 46%. The proposal is to require that it be at least 50% in all developments.

Baker said that would not reduce the number of units that could be built. In some cases, greater allowable density would actually provide for more units.

He also said that there is no intention of requiring that existing stormwater retention systems be remodeled. "This is all looking to what happens in the future," he said.

What initially purported to be draft legislation prepared by the department has been selectively circulated and discussed at by-invitation gatherings since late August.

It has garnered significant support as well as objections and criticism, Baker said. "Nobody is against the idea itself, but there are different views of how we should go about it," he said.

One feature that has drawn considerable criticism is a provision that the resources areas be deeded to and maintained by recognized conservation groups which would be able to restrict access to the land. "I'm pretty sure that'll be one of the things that'll be out of there" as the proposal moves forward, he said.

Baker and the department are now referring to the document as a 'first draft'. He said he regrets having crafted it in legislative form and language, but defended the process of submitting it first to selected recipients and audiences. "We were trying to get some ideas on the table before we got it out to the [general] public," he said.

To do that, he maintained that it "made sense" to start with presentations to developers, engineers, lawyers who specialize in land-use matters, conservation organizations and officials of umbrella civic associations.

In a memorandum to "interested parties," assistant general manager George Haggerty catalogued "a lot of good and diverse comments [that] have already been generated." Among those he listed were a suggestion that conservation design be encouraged by incentive rather than mandated; the possibility of financing maintenance by a 'conservation tax'; providing for continuing government oversight after developments are finished and parcels are sold; requiring connections to adjacent land; and conducting extensive education of the public.

Baker said that all future presentations will be open to the general public. The county also will use newspapers and other media to get the word out. He said his record in dealing with major public issues in the past "clearly shows that I favor a public process."

Before an ordinance can be enacted by County Council it has to be the subject of at least one public hearing by the Planning Board and a subsequent recommendation from that panel. It also is likely that Council would hold one or more public hearings.

"We'll tell [the public] what we're trying to accomplish and seek input on how we might do it," Baker said.

2002. All rights reserved.

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