Commissioners wait on Estuary decision

When asked, only two people raised their hands Thursday night in support. Some 33 people then confirmed their opposition to the plan to subdivide 742 acres into 1,060 lots off of Camp Barnes and Double Bridges roads, near the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, for a proposed development called The Estuary.

But despite the overwhelming opposition, representatives for the developers presented an “environmentally sensitive” cluster plan to the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission and a disapproving crowd Thursday that did not exceed density limitations in its AR-1 zone.

The proposed 1.43 lots per acre is far less, in fact, than the 2.18 lots per acre allowed in AR-1, developer’s attorney Jim Fuqua noted several times. And although the land is in the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Developing district, the area is – as its name implies – designated for growth in Sussex’s land-use plan, he added.

The commission did not make a decision Thursday night, but will likely have a challenge ahead of them if they wish to please those whose hands seemed to fill the room in a statement of opposition.

“The law is what it is,” Fuqua told the commission. “That is what your decision must be based on. It is the responsibility of the Planning and Zoning Commission to make decision based on the law.”

Palisades Land LLC’s cluster plan utilizes a county ordinance that allows for smaller lots to create more open space. The average lot in the proposed plan will be about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, one representative said Thursday. That plan includes single-family homes, a recreation facility, a sales center that will ultimately be converted into some type of community building and a boat storage area for non-motorized watercrafts.

The plan does not include, as the state’s PLUS review wrongly reported, a commercial center. Such a center was proposed with The Palisades three years ago.

“We are not seeking a commercial shopping center,” Fuqua said, clearing up some misunderstanding that The Palisades and The Estuary are the same project with different names. Palisades Land LLC has been taken over by a different developer since 2003. “This is not that application.”

This application includes land currently subdivided into 20,000 square foot lots for Williams Creek – which has not received final approval from the county. It also includes several roundabouts, including one proposed for Camp Barnes Road, as well as more than 90 miles of sidewalks and trails, and a spa. And more than 50 percent of the 742 acres will be left as open space – thanks in part to the cluster ordinance.

Still – despite pleadings by the developers that The Estuary would not negatively effect its adjacent, sensitive environment – most in attendance Thursday night were not satisfied.

“It’s going to put more stress on the resource,” said Chris Bason, a Center for the Inland Bays employee who was not representing the organization Thursday. “I’m concerned about that.”

Most who spoke in opposition expressed worries about the effect more than 1,000 homes would have on the bays and on the wildlife that is already being forced out of its natural habitat by runaway development.

Traffic was another major concern. Double Bridges and Camp Barnes roads already pose safety concerns and, despite improvements that will likely come with The Estuary, they will only get worse, people said, reiterating recent complaints about the plan.

Some people, though, raised their hands Thursday to express different, fresher concerns about the proposal.

“Was there any property set aside for affordable housing for locals? Was that even thought about?” nearby resident Christina Criswell asked.

“It’s a nice project,” added Herbert Barnes Jr., a board member at Camp Barnes and the son of its founder, who expressed concern about visiting children. “I know the gentlemen have done a lot. But the safety of the children is my utmost concern.”

Read more coverage on this issue in the Sept. 1 issue of the Coastal Point.