SNOW HILL- Over 1,300 days, or roughly three-and-a-half years after the award-winning March 2006 Worcester County Comprehensive Plan was approved, the associated comprehensive rezoning, new zoning code, and new subdivision regulations were endorsed this week.
The ‘new’ Comprehensive Plan was approved on March 26, 2006. The rezoning code, subdivision regulations, and new zoning maps had to wait three years and seven months more for completion and approval on November 3, 2009.
When the Comprehensive Plan was approved in spring 2006, the sitting County Commissioners declared that the comprehensive rezoning should wait because it was an election year. Waiting would allow any new commissioners to be in on the process from the beginning.
In the end, it took over two years before the comprehensive rezoning process began. On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners approved the new zoning code and subdivision regulations and the commercial design guidelines unanimously.
The new zoning maps, which saw some changes on November 3, were approved by a vote of 6-1. Commissioner Bobby Cowger voted against the maps, objecting to what he considers down-zonings, which he believes devalue property.
The commissioners focused heavily on Route 589, as plans are now being made for changes to that highway.
“Nothing should be changed on 589 until we find out exactly what the state is going to do with the highway regarding the impact from slots,” said Commission president Louise Gulyas. “I believe all the zoning along 589 should stay the same until we know exactly what’s going to happen.”
The commissioners decided to hold Route 589 properties at their current zoning. A future sectional rezoning can be conducted once plans for Route 589 are determined.
Commissioner Linda Busick reminded the other commissioners that most of them were elected on a platform of support for the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, which designates Route 589 as an impacted road.
“I would hesitate to change the zoning on any property on 589. I think any zoning at this time should remain the way they are,” Busick said.
Others agreed a piece-meal approach could call into question the validity of the planning document.
“Once we start nibbling away at the Comprehensive Plan, we don’t have a valid plan,” Commissioner Judy Boggs said.
Looking at Route 589 as it stands, the unknowns are just too great, she concluded.
“It’s only a 4.7 mile road and there are now seven traffic lights and we haven’t even talked about the north end where there’s going to be some further development,” said Boggs.
State Highway does not yet have a definite plan for the highway, Commissioner Virgil Shockley said.
“You’ve got a crystal ball and there’s nothing in it,” Shockley said.
Two Route 589 properties in particular occupied elected officials Tuesday afternoon. Property owner Jack Burbage is planning medical offices on a parcel bordering the southern edge of Ocean Pines, zoned residential, with Atlantic General Hospital already expressing interest. That site was zoned for agriculture under the last zoning, although plans for a residential development, and now health offices, have been bandied about.
The Worcester County Planning Commission had recommended residential zoning on that property. A health campus versus the 30 homes that could be put on that property would have no greater traffic impact, Commissioner Bud Church argued.
A second property intended for a medical campus, north of the Route 90 and Route 589 intersection, was also held to the zoning previously assigned. That property is owned by Palmer Gillis.
The Planning Commission recommended neighborhood commercial zoning for that site, which is listed as neighborhood business under the previous zoning, while staff wanted to see that parcel changed to residential because of traffic access issues and the abundance of underused commercial space in the area.
“It’s staying the same,” said Busick.
The previous B-1 designation is comparable, though not exactly the same, as C-1 neighborhood commercial zoning under the new zoning system.
“I really agonized over this because of the traffic issues…if we put residential there it’s going to be more traffic and traffic all the time,” said Boggs.
Church said the commissioners’ reasons for ruling on the zoning changes were inconsistent.
“Every argument you’ve made against Mr. Burbage, you’ve argued in favor of on this project,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair, what’s happening today.”
The only difference is that Burbage’s property was zoned agricultural, while Gillis’ property was already zoned business, said Busick.
The commissioners voted 6-1, with Cowger against, to leave the zoning on the Gillis property the same, with just a new designation under the new system.
The Planted Pleasures property on McAllister Rd., which parallels Route 589 across from Ocean Downs Racetrack, also retained its current estate zoning instead of being changed to R-1 residential, and could be subject to the sectional Route 589 rezoning in the future.
A handful of smaller parcels along Route 589 were also kept at the current zoning. Some commissioners felt that individual properties needed more individual consideration.
Meanwhile, a property on Route 611, owned by Gene Parker, came under scrutiny.
“I don’t believe it’s fair when an individual has paid several million for a piece of property to have it down-zoned and take away his rights to that property,” said Church. “He should be able to preserve what he has.”
However, Boggs countered monetary investments should not be considered in the planning document.
“I have a problem with looking into individuals and how much they purchased the property for and that type of thing,” said Boggs. “We’re looking for the broad planning perspective for the entire county and I don’t think we should take that into consideration.”
However, Cowger said some investments were made with the promise the land could be developed in the future.
“We’re changing it midstream on them,” he said. “I’m not down-zoning and devaluing nobody’s property. You can’t take money out of people’s property just because you don’t want to see it develop.”
The commissioners voted to assign a less intense commercial designation than the owner requested, but agreed with the more intense residential zoned requested.
Another property near Route 611 owned by Mark Odachowski, zoned neighborhood business, had been recommended for A-2, an agriculture business zone, by the planning commission. This change would devalue the property and derail the owner’s plans for the site, Cowger contended.
A site plan for mini-storage on that land has been approved, and would still be good for two years after the comprehensive rezoning was approved, said staffer Ed Tudor.
The property value won’t hold, Cowger persisted, and with the recession, the county should not down-zone property. The Comprehensive Plan calls for a better balance in the supply of commercial land, said Tudor.
“He bought the property as commercial property,” said Cowger.
Cowger recommended putting the site in a parallel zone under the new system, general commercial.
“He paid over $1 million for that piece of property,” said Cowger.
Boggs brought up a large agricultural property across from Stephen Decatur Middle School, the proposed site for a large shopping center known as Liberty Square.
“This is, I think, too major for the area,” Boggs said. A large shopping center at that site would put high volumes of traffic into the school area and down Flower St., a residential neighborhood, Boggs felt.
Staff and the Planning Commission recommended putting the property in the general commercial zone.
“It’s more compatible for smaller businesses. I think a C-1 would be better. I just don’t want to see it upzoned,” Boggs said.
A number of people from the Flower St. neighborhood have come to Commissioner Jim Purnell with concerns over traffic from a shopping center at that site using their street to cut over to Route 113, or from Route 113 to the shopping center. “There’s no way our community can survive with all that going down our street,” said Purnell.
Gulyas agreed the impact of the commercial development on the neighborhood would be detrimental.
“I think it’s a residential area and the traffic should not be put through a residential area,” said Gulyas. “This is the wrong place to do it.”
However, other said derailing the project at this point would mean a significant financial loss for the property owner.
“What everyone seems to forget is this gentleman has been in the process for a number of years and has put about $6 million into it,” said Church. “It’s condemnation by legislation.”
A traffic analysis conducted by owner Meinhart-Rogers Inc. shows that the traffic would not be a problem with the service road there, according to Church.
“To do this now would be a travesty,” said Church.
However, Boggs disagreed.
“It’s an encroachment on a community. It’s going to devastate that community,” she said.
In the end, the commissioners voted 5-2 to keep that property agricultural with Cowger and Church in opposition.
Cowger, who continued to emphasize his feeling that the county was devaluing property by refusing to upzone it, wondered if those decisions opened the county up to lawsuits.
“Anybody can sue anybody over anything. Will they be successful? No,” said Bloxom.
To win that kind of lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the commissioners’ zoning decision removed the economic viability of the land, he said. “You’d have to show the property was worth almost zero now,” said Bloxom.