County Planning Body Seeks Moratorium On Rezonings

SNOW HILL – With no significant progress made on the comprehensive rezoning, the Worcester County Planning Commission will request that county elected officials declare a moratorium on further individual rezonings until the larger work is complete.

The comprehensive rezoning, an overhaul of county zoning codes and maps, is a required element of the new Comprehensive Plan, adopted 18 months ago.

The County Commissioners formally directed staff to begin working on the comprehensive rezoning in early February. The work was expected to take six months, but August has passed and little to no progress has been made.

“It’s nowhere. They haven’t had time to work on it,” Planning Commission Chair Carolyn Cummins said this week.

Other commission members chimed in as well with Brooks Clayville saying,  “I’m tired of waiting for the rezoning,” and Jeanne Lynch saying, “It’s just going to be by default and there’s going to be no plan.”

Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor admitted there has been “minimal progress at best.”

Tudor said his department has had too many other things to do, including the individual rezonings to permit much work to be done on the comprehensive rezoning project.

“It’s something we’ve been wanting to work on for a long time,” Tudor said.

Unexpected issues, like Berlin’s wastewater treatment plant proposal and depositions for lawsuits, also take time away from the comprehensive rezoning.

Once an application for a rezoning comes in, it must be dealt with, unless there’s a moratorium in place.

“In the absence of a moratorium, I have no choice. I can only stall so long,” said Phyllis Wimbrow, deputy head of Development Review and Permitting.

A moratorium on new rezoning cases would not necessarily solve the problem, Cummins explained, because of the number of rezoning applications already submitted.

“You can’t freeze what’s in the pipeline,” Cummins said.   

Until the changes to the zoning code are made, the Planning Commission can only use the outdated, existing code, as illustrated last week during the Planning Commission meeting.

A rezoning request discussed last week for a property on the outskirts of Snow Hill prompted discussion of the need to wait for the comprehensive rezoning, with Cummins saying that the area should wait for the comprehensive rezoning, and that the Planning Commission does not have to give a favorable recommendation to the individual rezoning applications that come in.

The rezoning was first delayed during the 2006 election year, with the County Commissioners saying they wanted the process overseen by the same group of commissioners.

The Comprehensive Plan is just the beginning of the county’s future roadmap for development and land use. Cummins said that the comprehensive rezoning is actually the most critical element, more important than the plan itself.

To many people, the comprehensive rezoning is merely a housekeeping measure to bring the county maps and code in line with the Comprehensive Plan. This is incorrect, said Cummins.

The comprehensive rezoning is vital, because the zoning code and maps make the Comprehensive Plan an enforceable reality to the property owners and developers in the county.

The comprehensive rezoning would assess the amount of land zoned commercial and residential and determine how much of each is necessary, for example. County staff has already determined that there is too much commercial zoning in the county for future needs, but the actual amount needed and where it should be placed are questions that will be answered by the overall rezoning.

Many landowners are only giving lip service to the Comprehensive Plan, as it has little in the way of enforcement mechanisms available to it without the revamped zoning code and maps.

“It’s only being superficially supported,” said Cummins.

Once begun in earnest, the new zoning code will take a year to complete, including public hearings.

Tudor said this week he is not typically a fan of moratoriums.

“In general, I’m not supportive of moratoriums. It’s just delaying the inevitable,” said Tudor. “Sometimes it’s counterproductive because you get it all at once [afterwards].”

Sussex County in Delaware has seen that first hand, Tudor said, with its Planning Commission 18 months behind after a moratorium. The Sussex County planners meet three times a month, just to whittle down the backlog, he said.

Additional staff would not help because of the time it would take for new hires to learn the work, said Tudor.

One alternative to a moratorium, hiring a consultant to write the new zoning code, is not the best idea, Cummins said, because no consultant would know the county the way the staff already does.

“This is something the staff needs to do,” she said.

Things generally have a way of working themselves out, said Tudor.

“Because of the downturn in the housing market, it’s going to free up some time for us,” Tudor said.