January 22, 2004

Enacting the 'hometown overlay' ordinance will correct an oversight which occurred 50 years ago and has affected some development in New Castle County ever since, the Department of Land Use will tell County Council.

Adopting the department's favorable assessment of the proposed addition to the Uniform Development Code, the county Planning Board voted six-to-one on Jan. 20 to also recommend approval of the proposed ordinance. If Council accepts the recommendations -- and it is almost certain that it will -- a dozen or so older communities stand to be given control over future development and redevelopment.

Plans and guidelines developed through a community consultation process can be given the force of law and local review committees granted power to pass on whether specific development proposals adhere to the plans' provisions.

That process, the department's recommendation said, will enable long-established but unincorporated places to preserve their "unique and diverse qualities."

So far, groups in Hockessin, Claymont and Centreville are moving in that direction. The department identified several others as having the potential to follow suit, including Greenville, Stanton, Marshallton, Red Lion, Port Penn and St. George's. But, it said it does not expect a rush to hop on the bandwagon given the apparent lack of any organizations in those places inclined to initiate the process.

However, Arden, Ardentown and Ardencroft, which are adjacent but separately incorporated villages, have asked to be included. They would be eligible, according to land use general manager Charles Baker, because they have chosen to bring themselves under the development code and contract with the department to provide land-use services.

The department's recommendation was conditioned on the ordinance providing that members of the review committee be appointed to staggered three-year terms. The measure officially before Council does not define the terms.

Board member June MacArtor voted against the Planning Board agreeing with the department's recommendation because, she said, "I don't think it is completely thought out yet."

Following normal procedure, the ordinance, which is sponsored by Councilman William Tansey,  could come before Council for final action at its meeting on Feb. 17.

In retrospect, it is curious that the old Levy Court ignored existing communities when, in 1954, it crafted the county's first zoning law. That code "made no attempt to define unincorporated hamlets and villages," the land use department noted. For whatever reason now lost in antiquity, the county's three-member governing body focused entirely on the new communities  being born at the height of the post-World War II baby boom.

As a result, the older places have experienced "decades of inappropriate zoning controls," the department's recommendation said.

That has meant buildings and other property features that are 'out of character' with their surroundings and an untold number of individually rendered and not always consistent zoning adjustments. In a broader context, supporters of the relatively recent effort to recapture traditional village and town atmospheres contend, it has meant creeping suburbanization.

If the 'hometown' ordinance is enacted, community organizations can petition Council to grant an 'overlay' covering an area defined as having stand-alone qualities. As a practical matter, Baker told the board, the actual areas to be affected will be "the main street or downtown section" of the designated area. "Nobody wants to [include] residential areas," he said.

A key part of granting the overlay would involve acceptance of the plan, which necessarily would have been developed with the guidance of a professional planner, either from his department or hired by the community, Baker added.

Board member Sandra Anderson asked if "just a group of people who get together" could initiate the process. It might be used, she said, to block an unwanted development proposal. Baker replied that applying an overlay would require Council to follow established zoning procedures, which include a public hearing and Department of Land Use and Planning Board consideration.

That and the fact that the review committee's role is defined as advisory, with Council having the final say on specific development proposals, mitigates against abuse of the process. "Not only is there a legal system involved, but [also] a political system involved," he said. The process "is community-driven but county-supported."

On the other hand, Baker said, the ordinance will force prospective developers to work more closely with communities and resolve differences at the local level rather than before County Council, the Planning Board or the Board of Adjustment.

Board chairman Victor Singer said all that enacting the ordinance does "is formalizing what already is ongoing."

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