January 7, 2004

Virtually no one showed up as the New Castle County Planning Board took testimony on a proposed law that, for the first time, would confer official recognition, albeit limited, upon some places whose existence has long been acknowledged but never actually defined.

The audience dwindled as the board completed consideration of five land-use proposals and only one person remained when chairman Victor Singer solicited comment from the general public on an ordinance which would establish a 'hometown' zoning classification for a few selected communities. George Lossé, president of the Claymont Community Coalition, said he thinks that is a good idea.

Claymont provided the impetus for an effort dating back to mid-2000 to "find a way to recognize [places] that have a special character without creating another layer of government," Councilman Robert Weiner, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, told the board at a public hearing on Jan. 6.

Unlike neighboring states where areas not incorporated as municipalities are blanketed by townships with local governments, Delaware consigns them to countywide jurisdictions. That works when it comes to regulating development in suburbia, but not in the handful of enclaves which predate the post-World War II migration from cities. In those places, it falls to a cumbersome and frequently unpredictable variance process to allow deviation on a case-by-case basis from present-day standards, said Charles Baker, general manager of the county Department of Land Use.

"We don't give weight within our [Unified Development] Code to what we do n those areas," Baker said. "This will establish different standards and review process for what happens [there]."

For example, the code requires new buildings to have front and side set-backs, In older communities, building to the property line was common practice. Applying the code in those places would produce a result that did not conform to the general appearance of the community.

The proposed ordinance would amend the code to allow County Council to create 'overlays' that would trump some provisions of the code in pre-defined geographic districts, such as Claymont. With support from professional planners and the department, they would be able to produce community plans, which would be given the force of law and be enforced by a local 'design review advisory committee'.

The plans would, among other things, establish local design standards and, in a general way, define acceptable uses for properties.

That, said Weiner, would "get the process out of the way and give developers a green light to come in" to rejuvenate properties in the areas while actually "enhanc[ing] neighborhood patterns developed before the coming of the car."

Claymont has a 'renaissance' movement that, working with an outside consultant, is close to completing a community plan. Hockessin is now considering a draft plan, produced in conjunction with a planner on the land use department's staff. Centreville also has a planning process underway.

A major element in the Claymont movement is to encourage economic redevelopment, Weiner said, adding that is not likely to happen if potential developers have to battle a process largely focused on suburban-type conformity. "Newark's Main Street [redevelopment] would have been illegal under the [county] development code," he said. As an incorporated city, Newark regulates its own land use.

Baker said there are, at most, a dozen places in the county that potentially would fit into a 'hometown overlay' arrangement, but, except for Stanton where some preliminary interest has been expressed, others presently lack a recognized mechanism to qualify for what he termed "special recognition."

"If they really want to be different, they could form their own incorporated town," board member June MacArtor suggested. Baker replied that the proposed ordinance confers only an extremely limited municipal function. "It wouldn't be much of a town if that (reviewing development proposals) is all they want to do," Baker said.

Lossé testified that proposals to incorporate come up in Claymont "roughly every two years or so," but are rejected in the face of the specter of additional taxes. As recently as last summer, state Representative Wayne Smith floated such a proposal, but nothing more has been heard of it since attenders at a Claymont Coalition meeting gave it no support.

Singer questioned whether the land use department would be able to comply with the ordinance's requirement that the designated communities pass on proposed development plans within a month of their formal submission. Baker said it did not anticipate being overwhelmed by such plans and said that three staff members have been designated to work with interested communities.

Baker did agree that the proposed ordinance has to be changed to define the length of terms on the local review boards. Singer pointed out that, in its present form, the measure implies that persons appointed to them would have lifetime tenure.

Planning board member Joseph Maloney said it also should be changed to provide for inclusion of a representative of the development or building businesses on the review boards.

After the planning board and the department make formal recommendations concerning the proposed ordinance, it will be ready for County Council action as soon as early February.

© 2004. All rights reserved.

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