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Sussex ordinance seeks to expand affordable housing

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Fifteen units at Coastal Tide Apartments are the first developed under a new Sussex County program to incentivize affordable housing aimed at workers. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSSEX COUNTY

GEORGETOWN – Sussex County’s Planning and Zoning Office is working to further incentivize housing developers to build affordable rental units through a new ordinance.

“We all realize that there’s a need for more affordable housing opportunities in Sussex County,” Assistant County Attorney Vincent Robertson said. “This ordinance has its origins back in the 2018 Comprehensive Plan … there were a lot of goals, objectives, and strategies that dealt with furthering affordable and workforce housing.”

The proposed ordinance would amend the Sussex County Rental Unit Program (SCRP), which focuses on trading density allowances to developers who include a certain percentage of affordable housing within their plans. If approved, the ordinance would require housing developments in the SCRP to reserve 30% units for affordable housing.

In addition, the ordinance caps 12 units per acre and would require connecting walkways to neighboring commercial properties as well as other neighboring sidewalks. Building’s height would also be capped at 52 feet. The ordinance was recommended for approval by the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission on June 9, and late last month the county council held its own public hearing on the ordinance.

The county’s affordable housing goals, as identified in its comprehensive plan, are threefold, according to Robertson. First, the county noted the importance of preserving its existing supply of affordable housing. The plan also identified a need for a local Housing Trust Fund.

Both of those goals have been achieved, Robertson said.

“Now we’re on strategy three, which is this ordinance modifying the county code to promote housing affordability in growth areas identified in our comprehensive plan,” Robertson said.

These units would be restricted to tenants who earn between 30% and 80% of their area median income (AMI). The AMI in Sussex County is approximately $91,900, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Rental rates for affordable housing units built under the ordinance will be based on 50% of the AMI in Sussex County. This ensures affordability for renters at both ends of the 30% and 80% AMI income range even as the AMI fluctuates over time, Director of Community Development Brandy Nauman said.

“If somebody rents one of these [SCRP] units at market rate, there’s going to be penalties that come back into our Sussex County Housing Trust Fund,” Nauman said.

Developers would also be mandated to set aside 50% of their site for use as open space and comply with an interconnectivity requirement.

“If the property is adjacent to a commercially zoned property, we wanted to have interconnectivity on that so that people could get into the commercial [space] without having to get onto the roadways,” Robertson said.

A petition in favor of the ordinance has received 59 signatures, according to Planning and Zoning Director Jaime Whitehouse.

Nevertheless, some Sussex County residents have concerns related to the ordinance.

Jill Hicks and Patti Drago were among those who spoke at a June 28 public hearing, urging those working on the ordinance to restrict development outside of environmentally sensitive wetlands and floodplains.

Of those who gave public comment at the hearing, the majority expressed disagreement with the ordinance’s lack of a public hearing requirement for the individual projects themselves.

After preliminary site plan approval, developers planning to build in accordance with the ordinance would seek approval from DelDOT, the Sussex Conservation District, the fire marshal, and a number of other agencies before receiving final approval, according to Robertson.

Despite the fact that a lengthy approval process is in place, many are worried that eliminating the component offering residents the chance to speak up will create tensions.

“The public hearing is part of the current process and to take it away from the public … will further exacerbate the current distrust the public has in county governance,” Hicks said.

By Emma Reilly

DBT Intern

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