Sussex County Council could easily slow the stampede of new residents by changing its two-homes-per acre zoning law.
On 100 square miles of southern New Castle County, developers have been restricted to a five-acre lot minimum since 1998. And last month, Kent County limited development in its eastern coastal zone to five- and 10-acre lots.
In Maryland, several counties, including some bordering Sussex, have large sectors where only one home is permitted for every 10, 15 or 20 acres.
Caroline County, which straddles Kent and Sussex, allows only 20-acre lots on most of its 204,000 acres. It adopted the law about 15 years ago to halt development pressure, planner Tammy Buckle said.
The law appears to have succeeded. Expansive farms dominate the landscape. Horses frolic in pastures. Only an occasional new home is visible.
Told about the two-homes-per-acre permitted in most of Sussex, Buckle exclaimed, "Oh, my gosh. A lot more places are going to be developed if they don't change that."
Sussex developer Clinton Bunting said council should adopt large-lot zoning.
"It's crazy. In some areas, it should be five acres per house, and in others, six or eight or 10 acres per house," Bunting said.
Lee Ann Walling, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's land-use adviser, said that in southernmost New Castle County, such a change in zoning "cut new development proposals down to a trickle."
'Get your noose ready'
The current Sussex council does not intend to change its law, however, because four of the five members believe larger-lot zoning would unfairly encroach on a farmer's ability to sell land for top dollar.
"You try something like that and you might as well get your noose ready," Councilman Dale Dukes said. "[Farmers] will hang you on a tree."
George Cole, the only member who favors a change, said colleagues are too enamored with revenues generated by development. "Greed is firing this engine," Cole said.
The 'takings' argument
Some pro-growth advocates believe large-lot zoning would amount to an illegal government "taking" of property under the U.S. Constitution.
"It's a type of illegal taking if you downzone someone's property without giving compensation," said Sandra Ware, a real estate agent and president of the Positive Growth Alliance, a group funded largely by developers.
Legal analysts agree that large-lot zoning does not constitute a taking. Timothy J. Dowling, attorney for the Community Rights Counsel in Washington, points to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that uphold the government's right to set broad land-use regulations.
Such rulings do not deter property-rights advocates, Dowling said.