February 18, 2000
George Cole can be right and wrong at the same time.
The Sussex County councilman is seeking public comment on his proposal to amend the zoning code for Residential Planned Communities Districts (RPCs).
The county code encourages RPC districts, to “[create] a superior living environment . . . and to provide for the application of design ingenuity while . . . achieving the goals of the [county’s] comprehensive plan . . . .”
In practice, RPCs are typically large developments with a mix of residential and commercial uses. They often include amenities such as golf courses or other areas for community activities.
The county Planning & Zoning Commission approves RPC proposals. The Commission uses density credits to permit variances from the normal minimum acreage requirements for residential lots. RPC Developers earn the credits by including land set aside for common open space or recreational uses when figuring out how many home sites can be fitted into the mix.
On the other hand, developers cannot use state wetlands and the acreage needed for the RPC’s streets for the density credit calculation. The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) regulates state wetlands, including tidal wetlands and large freshwater non-tidal wetlands.
Cole now wants to exclude Federal wetlands and golf course acreage from the density credit calculation. The Federal wetland definition covers more land than DNREC’s definition. A full size golf course can spread over 150 acres.
Essentially, Cole’s proposal would sharply reduce the number of homes that can be built in an RPC District that included a golf course.
Cole is right about wetlands, but wrong about golf courses.
Wetlands need protection, and already receive a significant amount under DNREC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers laws and regulations. Nonetheless, under the Clean Water Act, the Corps can permit the use of Federal wetlands for development.
It’s perfectly appropriate for Sussex County to go beyond Federal regulations and discourage the use of Federal wetlands. For example, there should proof that a broad public purpose will be served, such as a needed road or bridge. Even then, mitigation should be required.
The county already uses a buffer zone setback requirement to help protect existing wetlands. Cole’s proposal is a natural extension of that policy.
On the other hand, golf courses also bring significant environmental benefits, but are built on land that could easily be developed for housing. For example, they provide sizeable green spaces for wildlife habitat, in addition to meeting their primary purpose for recreation. Golf course ponds can be incorporated into an RPC’s stormwater management plans, reducing runoff and other environmental hazards.
As a community improvement, golf courses enhance property values for the surrounding area. They also make available long-term employment opportunities that would not exist if the acreage were used instead for homesites.
In 1996 a group of leading environmental and golf organizations agreed on a set of principles to bring good environmental practices to golf course planning, siting, construction, and maintenance. The signatories included the National Wildlife Federation, the American Farmland Trust, the EPA, and the USGA.
If RPC developers agree to design, construct, and maintain the courses in keeping with these principles, they should receive full density credits for the golf course acreage.
As a golf columnist, I can’t be described as a neutral observer. Nonetheless, Councilman Cole may not have realized all the benefits golf courses provide the community, beyond the particular needs of golfers.
If designed and built with environmental sensitivity, golf course acreage should be included in RPC density calculations. It’s good for the county, its’ citizens, the local economy, and, of course, golf.