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Delaware’s new zoning in a nutshell

October 23, 2013

It’s not easy to keep straight in your mind just what the controversial new zoning law in the Town of Delaware is all about. I find this a helpful trick: Draw a square on a piece of paper and then draw a line across it so you have two parts, the top one smaller than the bottom. In the top part, write “DR,” for Delaware River zoning district. In the bottom half, write “RU,” for Rural Use zoning district. Before the changes, there were many parcels of land in Delaware like this.

It might seem strange to have one parcel of land in two zoning districts, but there was a good reason. The line you drew stands for the boundary of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. Within that boundary, towns are legally required to write zoning laws that comply with something called the Land and Water Use Guidelines. Delaware’s old zoning law did just that. The DR district has a set of Permitted and Special Uses that comply with the guidelines, while the adjoining RU district has a different, more permissive set.

The exact boundary of the river corridor can be hard to determine. In a particular case, a surveyor might be required. But this set-up existed without a hitch for over 25 years, until the town, for reasons never revealed, decided that you should cross out DR in the top part of the square and write in RU instead.

You might say “That’s great, now the same more permissive rules apply to my whole property.” No. The top part of your property is not governed by the clear list of RU Uses. Writing in “RU” is actually very misleading. The boundary of the river corridor stays exactly where it was and zoning within the river corridor still has to comply with those Land and Water Use Guidelines. What has changed is that under the new law you can no longer consult any clear list of uses. What the new law says is that if you want to know what you can do in the top part of your property you need to go take a look at the guidelines yourself.

Good luck finding the guidelines, since they are not on the town’s website. And good luck if you do find them, because they are 20 pages long, and won’t answer your questions about what you can do. The guidelines were not designed to be something landowners, or developers, or architects could usefully consult. Under the Town of Delaware’s new law, it’s anybody’s guess what you can do in the top part of your property. Cross out “RU” in the top part of the square and replace it with a question mark. And you’ll still need that surveyor, by the way.

That’s basically what Delaware’s new zoning law amounts to.

[Liam Murphy is a resident of the Town of Delaware.]