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1/11/2017
NCCo Council approves development code updates; Weiner: after extensive public vetting process, we can grow responsibly while protecting the sanctity of our traffic infrastructure

“The public vetting process has been extensive and has resulted in the ability to grow responsibly while protecting the sanctity of our traffic infrastructure," Councilman Bob Weiner said.

NCCo Council approves development code updates


Xerxes Wilson , The News Journal Jan. 10, 2017 

New Castle County Council passed changes to local building and development rules that may shape the future of economic development and local traffic in the state's most populous county.

The new rules add protections for the character of neighborhoods as well as a new path for large, job-creator businesses to locate and build in the county. It's been a long-running process that has been delayed over concerns the changes could dilute controversial protections against traffic gridlock — concerns County Council members rejected in their approval of the changes.

"It gives developers another option," said Councilman David Tackett, who sponsored the legislation. "This ordinance has been discussed, out there and up for consideration for almost two years."

The changes were amendments to the Unified Development Code, a 515-page document that sets out rules for and standards for what and where things can be built in New Castle County. It touches on details from building height to how proposed projects can impact traffic and the environment and is a blueprint for future projects.

County Council approved three revisions.

The first provides a set of so-called guiding principles for future projects, setting out things like architectural standards aimed at motivating builders to make sure their projects fit with the character of surrounding neighborhoods. The principles amount to suggestions for developers and are not binding.

The second change creates a new tool for neighborhoods or communities to proactively institute stricter design rules in certain areas. So-called neighborhood protection overlay districts would act as a new zoning overlay placed on residential areas and bring stricter rules for development design and density than basic rules included in the county's zoning districts.

Private property signs mark the grounds of the former Hercules Country Club, later known as the Delaware National Country Club, at Lancaster Pike and Hercules Road in Mill Creek. Toll Brothers Inc. had proposed a 264-home development on the 200-plus acres, which was rejected by New Castle County. The rejection led to a lengthy lawsuit recently won by the county. (Photo: JENNIFER CORBETT/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

The third change passed was the so-called economic empowerment district. Such a district will act as a new zoning category landowners may have applied to a parcel they wish to one day sell or lease to a large employer in one of several fields such as aerospace or agricultural science.

County Council would approve applications in a way that would take place before the landowner has a tenant identified. Those approvals will include traffic, environmental and other studies prior to a tenant being primed to buy or lease the land for a headquarters or job center.

The county's land use policies have been singled out as a hindrance to economic development by local business officials. It's a longstanding complaint that the county can't attract large employers because its development-approval process is unpredictable.

Center to that complaint are protections in the county code regarding traffic. The county has the authority to reject a development application if projected traffic from the project strains local intersections beyond a certain point. The developer can also be required to pay for upgrading local roads to accommodate the traffic situation, changes that can cost millions.

Traffic protections have been on the central complaints from the business community. The county has also found itself in court multiple times on high-profile fights over traffic provisions in the county code.

The economic empowerment district is seen as a way avoid some of the unpredictability in the traffic regulations, but some critics of the change see it as an end-around to those changes and other quality-of-life protections in the code.

Vic Singer, former chair of the county's Planning Board, said the implementation of the economic empowerment district, as well as the neighborhood protection overlay district, could open the county to a repeat of the Barley Mill Plaza conflict. That controversial commercial and residential development near Greenville triggered a wave of disapproval and litigation from residents when it was announced in 2008.

Barley Mill Plaza near Greenville is shown in September 2013. The property was sold this month to Pettinaro, which plans to redevelop the former DuPont Co. site. A previous development plan sparked a wave of community opposition and a lengthy legal battle. (Photo: FILE PHOTO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

County Council approved the initial rezoning to allow the project without consideration of traffic impact only to have the decision overturned by the courts after years and millions spent on the legal battle.Singer's concern is that when County Council approves the creation of an economic empowerment district or neighborhood protection overlay district, it could do so in a way that eases restrictions that limit development near busy highway intersections.

"Existing unified development code standards aim at minimizing public costs by assuring concurrency of intensifications of land use and essential supporting infrastructure," Singer said. "The economic empowerment district ordinance enables cutting parcel by parcel deals later to eliminate any unified development code standards blocking any development plan."

While the question is up to legal interpretation, county officials have vehemently denied that could be the case. The three changes were delayed earlier this year while new language was added to bolster the quality-of-life protections, officials said.

"I share Mr. Singer's concerns, but the public vetting process has been extensive and has resulted in the ability to grow responsibly while protecting the sanctity of our traffic infrastructure," Councilman Bob Weiner said.

Singer also raised concerns that the changes would run against laws regarding uniformity within zoning districts.

Mary Jacobson, attorney for county government, said the new laws will stand up to scrutiny and do not allow circumvention of existing traffic protections.

"We crafted the ordinances specifically to overcome these legal issues," Jacobson said.

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"Councilman Robert Weiner is legendary for his energy, knowledge and drive. He is one of the guiding forces behind the passage of the environmentally protective New Castle County United Development Code. He has been a force for good government in New Castle County for more than two decades."

Christine Whitehead
Former Vice President, Civic League for New Castle County

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