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October 28,  2009

Business group seeks revamping
of county development code

New Castle County Chamber of Commerce called for a comprehensive overhaul of the Unified Development Code to make it more receptive to commercial development and stave off what its president charged is "a very uncertain economic future."

Mark Kleinschmidt told a meeting of County Council's economic development committee that a downturn in the county's ability to attract job-creating businesses and expand what is here "can be traced back to 1997 when the [development code] came into effect."

From 1980 until then, he said, county government policy was "pro-growth." Since then, he charged, it has tilted to favoring a "no-growth, nimby" attitude furthered by so-called 'umbrella' civic organizations. 'Nimby' is an acronym for 'not in my back yard'.

"We need to move to a sense of balance" between 'business concerns' and 'community concerns', he said. "We need to look at some updates to [the development code]."

David Culver, general manager of the Department of Land Use, which administers the development code, said the department is currently in the process of producing "a series of ordinances that address a lot of concerns about it."

It has, for instance, engaged Thomas Comitta Associates, a planning consultant firm, to help produce mixed-use development regulations, he said.

Culver cited the just-enacted ordinance which reduces approval of proposed rezonings and major development plans to a two-step rather than a three-step process as an example of efforts to address concerns about the code. He pointed out that there have been many changes made over the years.

At the committee meeting on Oct. 27, Kleinschmidt said the chamber of commerce wants to see seven specific "updates" made to the development code:

Promote mixed-use development by amending the definition of what is acceptable, allowing as few as two uses to be considered mixed use.

'Update' density standards by reducing the open-space requirement and increasing floor-area ratios in areas other than those zoned residential.

Expand redevelopment of marginal and blighted sites by more "reasonable" renovation and demolition ratios.

Shorten the approval process for development plans by eliminating the "uncertain timetable" for approvals by participating regulatory agencies. Shorten the approval process for rezonings by not limiting County Council approval votes to just three times a year. (That proposal appears to have been satisfied by some of the provisions of the two-step process ordinance which Culver cited.)

Standardize interpretations of the development code and provide that, when there is uncertainty about code provisions, the Department of Land Use interpret it "in favor of the applicant."

'Update' definitions of steep slopes and riparian buffers to make the requirements more liberal.

Include economic-impact statements in plans for major commercial development and rezoning proposals.

Absent efforts to bring about such changes, Kleinschmidt said, the chamber, which claims to have more than 1,700 members -- mostly small- and medium-size businesses -- will actively oppose any increases in taxes or fees and regulations changes "that increase costs to business" during the coming year.

He indicated that the business organization will push for speedy support for its proposals. "We don't have a lot of time," he said. "We'll be coming out of the 'Great Recession' some time in 2010 and we need to support business growth." Otherwise, he added, "when recovery comes we'll fall further behind."

Looking further into the future, he said, "we're going to be doing a lot of driving to see our children and grandchildren because they are not going to be working here."

With time allotted for the committee meeting running short, Council members had limited reactions to Kleinschmidt's presentation.

Penrose Hollins said some of his unfavorable comparisons of county government's jurisdiction with some municipal governments, such as Middletown, were the result of their ability to annex territory without having to overcome state-imposed restrictions which apply only to Wilmington. And, he said, "you can't blame the [development code] for things like Du Pont [company] exporting jobs."

Council President Paul Clark acknowledged that "we often pass legislation without knowing the cost-benefit impact of that legislation."

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