The meeting began at noon, and our item didn't come up until 2pm.
Quick background. The owner/developer has proposed a PUD, a Planned Unit Development. PUDs have been added to the Cecil County code to permit high density residential developments, with a set of requirements. This proposal loosely follows the PUD requirements, but fails in three or more ways. The most egregious violation is the commercial space. For the 116 proposed residences (dwelling units), 1,160 square feet of commercial space is permitted, enough for a Wawa or 7-11. The commercial space provision is designed to cut down on vehicular traffic, to provide enough space to have one or two businesses within the community, which are in walking distance, but not so much space that external traffic will enter the community. Instead of 1,160 square feet, this proposal includes 19,600 square feet of commercial space, a set of medical professional office buildings.
The procedure is that the developer submits the plans, which go to the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), which is composed of Cecil County government staff, members of the Planning and Zoning Department, Public Works Department, Health Department, etc. They met and have minutes from their review, which was fatally flawed.
The TAC report noted one of the PUD rule violations, and then attempted to make excuses for it (I thought that the staff’s job is to enforce rules, not to give developers free passes. Their review was silent on the commercial space violation.
Normally, the Planning Commission can rely on a TAC report to cover the highlights and lowlights of a proposal. As the TAC report was so flawed, the PC was completely unprepared for yesterday’s public meeting.
First the developer’s engineer present his pitch. The commissioners had a few minor questions. Then the staff (those who authored the TAC report) did some reporting, largely regurgitating what their staff report said. The commissioners had some questions, but did not press anything hard. NOTE THAT AT THIS POINT THE 17 TIMES 'OVERAGE' OF THE COMMERCIAL SPACE HAD NOT BEEN RAISED.
Next about five folks from the public spoke (first off, New Castle County Councilperson and nearby resident Lisa Diller). Lisa Diller's exchange was illuminating. This was the first time that the commercial space issue was raised. The lead commissioner was stunned, and asked Tony (staffer from planning & zoning) if this was indeed true. It took Tony forever to find the section of the code, and he reluctantly agreed that what Lisa raised was 100% accurate. Potentially, it showed that the commissioners were (rightfully) disappointed, that the staff failed in properly vetting the proposal, putting the planning commission in an unnecessarily awkward position.
Several other residents spoke up in opposition to the proposal (an additional resident (of New Castle) spoke in favor of it, and a yet additional resident spoke of COMPLETELY UNRELATED concerns). The rest of us hammered the proposal’s failure to follow the PUD rules. Closing words attacking the developer’s engineer’s report “They conclude with the following sentence ‘With all the above discussion providing justification we believe this site makes for a viable choice for a PUD.’ I agree. Let me know when you have a PUD to present, one that follows the county’s rules for a PUD.”
We knew that this was coming (the testimony). What we didn’t know was the result. Unanimous vote by the commission to deny a recommendation to approve the PUD exemption. The next step, if this were to proceed, is for the county Board of Appeals to consider the PUD exemption, which I believe could occur in June. While the board of appeals can potentially approve a development against the Planning Commission’s recommendation (and with rule violations in it), it is a much higher bar to clear.
Yesterday the county staff and commissions were put on notice—the people are watching, and the people demand that Cecil County planning staff and commissions are expected to do their jobs, and enforce their own rules.
Government is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address did not mention developers, for a good reason.
Yesterday each of us were also put on notice—fail to pay attention to such matters at your own peril. If we had not spoken up, this project would have been one step closer to putting a 20,000 commercial space into an area zoned residential. As Harry Potter’s Professor Moody would say, “Constant vigilance!”
Consider this a clear victory, but only in a (second) battle.
PS I would like to thank several folks, Sue and Ron for raising the issue to my attention, Lisa and Paul for being willing to use their roles in (Delaware) government to stand up for proper development, and Chris and David for sharing their expertise to help me better understand zoning and development issues. I would also like to note that the Cecil County planning department (not Tony but others) were extremely helpful when I went there last week (and in prompt email responses) to obtain plans and drawing, necessary for a proper analysis of the proposal.
PPS The meeting minutes are not yet posted, but I expect that shortly they will appear, at http://www.ccgov.org/dept_planning/PlanComm/index.cfm