March 17, 2004

The 'hometown overlay' ordinance and legislation to establish an independent audit committee were cleared for likely approval by New Castle County Council at its next session. Both measures have been pending for several weeks.

The overlay would be applied by Council to selected communities which predate the post-World War Two suburban boom and supersede some zoning regulations when local design-review committees and Council determine that that is necessary to preserve their established character and appearance. In effect, the communities would be given an official identity without having to become incorporated as municipalities.

The audit committee will oversee the work of the county auditor, who otherwise will continue to report to County Council. That arrangement will remove both Council and the county administration from having direct control over what he aspects of county finances he looks into and is expected to forestall state legislation intended to strengthen the auditor's independence.

Council actually will vote Mar. 23 on a third substitute to the original version of the overlay ordinance. It will be introduced then to replace a second substitute which is now officially pending. Council rules permit substitutes for pending ordinances -- no matter how significantly different they may be so long as they deal with the same topic -- to be enacted the same evening they are introduced.

In this case, Council's land use committee was told at a meeting on Mar. 16, the changes in the new version primarily are intended to make it clear that the intent of the law is to encourage, not prevent, development and redevelopment in the affected communities.

Councilman Robert Weiner, a co-sponsor of the measure, said the changes were made "after a conversation" the previous day with Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a trade organization supporting the development business.

"A major objection from part of the business community has been addressed," Weiner said. But, he added, the intent of the legislation has always been to foster redevelopment.

The clause which expresses the purpose of what will be a new section in the Unified Development Code now reads: "The creation of overlay districts is intended to foster investment and redevelopment in these communities by preventing the need for [zoning] variances in order to maintain existing patterns and characteristics, and to prevent the lack of harmony that results from strict adherence to existing zoning standards."

If that were not enough, Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, told the committee, all of the numerous references to what formerly were called 'community plans' have been changed to refer to them as 'community redevelopment plans'. The proposed ordinance provides for plans developed by community residents to be given the force of law in regulating future development activity.

Another change specifically identifies the communities that will be eligible to seek an overlay as "unincorporated areas of the county identified in Chapter 10 of the 1997 New Castle County Comprehensive Plan Update as well as Claymont." Claymont was "inadvertently overlooked" when the list was compiled, said Weiner, who has been a spearhead of the Claymont Renaissance movement which seeks redevelopment of that community.

Also eligible will be incorporated areas which have delegated their zoning and other land use regulatory functions to the department under provisions of the Unified Development Code. That provision was in response to requests from Arden, Ardentown and Ardencroft, which are separately incorporated, to be included.

Delaforum was told that, in addition to those four, communities which can be included are: Centreville, Christiana, Glasgow, Hockessin, Marshallton, Port Penn, Saint Georges, Stanton and Yorklyn.

Although narrowly drawn, the audit committee proposal actually was by far the more controversial of the two unrelated measures. It took literally a last-minute compromise, evidently agreed upon just before Council's executive committee convened, to secure consensus. A substitute to the pending ordinance has yet to be drafted to reflect the agreement.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky said that, instead of the previous provision to have three of the five audit committee members drawn from the professional community and one each appointed by Council and by the county executive, all five members will be outside professionals. "None will come from the government; they all will be independent," she said.

There was lingering disagreement among Council members over whether all five had to be currently practicing certified public accountants. Venezky said she favors requiring "immediate practical experience" while Councilman William Tansey said he does not want to exclude qualified persons drawn from academia and elsewhere.

"We're surrounded by huge businesses. There will be no problem getting people who are actually practitioners," Councilwoman Patty Powell said. Councilman Penrose Hollins, however, came out in favor of recruiting "whoever the best talent may be." At most, the position will be minimally paid.

When members split even on the question, with Tansey abstaining from the vote, Council president Christopher Coons ruled that a decision can wait and ultimately be rendered when Council considers candidates for appointment to the committee.

There also was dispute over whether the committee should be empowered to 'direct' the auditing function or be given a lesser mandate, such as 'advise'. In that case, 'direct' survived after the county's chief financial officer said, "Taxpayers [will] expect this committee to provide governance over the auditing function."

Auditor Robert Hicks said he was pleased with the measure as it will likely go before Council for enactment.

Coons indicated he does not think any lingering disagreement among members will prevent that by declaring that passage will demonstrate to state legislators that "County Council is perfectly capable of reaching a compromise" to decide its own affairs.

In another matter, the land use committee was told that the land use department is in the process of rewriting and updating the property-maintenance code. Assistant general manager James Smith said that will deal with provisions covering what sorts of vehicles can be parked on residential properties and where on the properties they can be located.

As it happened, Powell, who chairs the committee, has a constituent who was recently cited for a code violation for parking an oversize truck he uses in his business on his property. She said he has been doing that for 20 years and there was no fuss about it until a new neighbor filed a complaint. "I don't think it is right that someone should be penalized for something that affects their livelihood," she said.

Smith indicated an even more contentious matter when he noted that some suburban utility vans and recreational vehicles are larger than what is allowed by the existing code.

2004. All rights reserved.

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