From Spotlight Delaware: Warehouses became neighbors in New Castle County. Can it happen downstate?

29
Residents of the Bayberry community near Middletown were outraged to learn that a soybean field to their north was set to become warehousing under a quirk of county zoning codes. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS
Advertisement

by José Ignacio Castañeda Perez

This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

Why Should Delaware Care?
Plans for massive warehouses to neighbor New Castle County communities incited fierce public backlash. With a development and population boom sweeping Delaware, Kent and Sussex counties could face similar issues years down the line.  

The public uproar stemming from warehouses being built near New Castle County residents isn’t worrying Kent and Sussex County planning officials, despite the potential for new development creeping downstate. 

Kent and Sussex County officials don’t expect to face the same type of controversy, given their counties’ distance from dense population hubs and major transportation corridors, such as Interstate 95. 

Advertisement

New Castle County residents began to raise concerns about huge warehouses being built next to their communities last year, with some of the projects being considered under a county ordinance to group and rezone 87 properties together under one New Castle County Council vote. 

The one-vote initiative would bypass a lengthy review and approval process for each project and largely sidestep public scrutiny, critics argued. The county council has since withdrawn the zoning ordinance, subjecting the projects to a lengthier and in-depth review process. 

Warehouses in the county are allowed to be built under the business park district classification, which is broadly defined in New Castle County zoning code. The district, which is often more closely associated with a cluster of office buildings, also allows for manufacturing, office, light industrial and warehousing uses. 

Residents worry that neighboring warehouses could bring about nuisances stemming from light, noise, dust and increased truck traffic.

In January, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer signed a law to mitigate the effects of large warehouses on neighboring communities. The law reduced the maximum size of large industrial buildings from 450,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet while requiring a public hearing for all new and proposed additions to industrial buildings with over 200,000 square feet of gross floor area.

Kent County zoning codes are more specific about where warehouses can be built and the restrictions imposed on them. Despite the population and development boom that Delaware is experiencing, Sussex County officials don’t expect to encounter the backlash that New Castle County is facing. 

Duck Creek Business Campus Smyrna industrial warehouse
Warehousing in Kent County has largely been restrained to major industrial projects like the Duck Creek Business Campus in Smyrna, but could grow under the county zoning code. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY JOSE IGNACIO CASTANEDA PEREZ

Kent County

In Kent County, warehouses are split out under their own use in the zoning code. Light warehousing, such as storage space for a carpentry business, is allowed under the county’s business/industrial park zoning classification. 

Any warehouse over 75,000 square feet would trigger conditional use approval, requiring the project to undergo public comment. Adjacent property owners would also be notified of the construction plans beforehand.

“We do our best to use zoning the way it was actually intended to limit conflicts,” said Sarah Keifer, Kent County planning director. “We haven’t seen anywhere near the conflict that New Castle County experiences.”

Kent County has fewer residents and doesn’t see the economic demands or contain the infrastructure that New Castle County does. 

“I don’t have I-95 in my county,” Keifer said. “However short that distance may be, I don’t have any of that.”

Still, the risk for a public backlash similar to what New Castle County is seeing is always present, she said. The county currently deals mostly with residential outcry from new homeowners seeking to limit neighboring developments.

In April 2023, Kent County updated its zoning code, revising some of the language concerning warehouses and the districts where they can be built. 

Warehouses are limited to being built under the county’s industrial and heaviest commercial zoning districts, but are permitted with specific conditions of approval in the general business district, limited industrial district and general industrial district. 

Each of the districts has some form of restriction to mitigate the effects of warehouses on the surrounding area. 

Projects in general business districts are subject to a restriction barring uses that may be detrimental to residential communities for noise, smoke, fire, vibrations, odor, dust, fumes or hazardous conditions. 

Buildings in the limited industrial district are required to have performance standards to “control and confine” the same detrimental effects. Projects in the general industrial district are meant to be placed in concentrated areas that would least affect neighboring land uses. 

“You’re just not going to find as much drama down here that you’re seeing up there — not about this,” Keifer said. 

Sussex County

Warehouses in Sussex County are allowed under both commercial and industrial zoning districts. The nonresidential districts could theoretically be adjacent to residential districts, according to Jamie Whitehouse, director of the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Office. 

The county is not concerned with the potential public backlash that is confronting New Castle County because the issue is not currently occurring and is not expected to be facedin Sussex County, according to Whitehouse.

When asked about concerns regarding public outcry from warehouses being built near residential communities, Whitehouse responded in an email that the county will not speculate on a “hypothetical scenario” that is not present or projected. 

The county is not currently considering any initiative to reform the zoning code to prevent warehouses being built near residential areas.

Rezoning requests in Sussex County must go through two public hearings to allow for the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Sussex County Council to review the location of the proposed rezoning and the use of the nearby parcels. 

The primary type of warehousing that Sussex County sees is mini-warehouses, such as individual property storage units, due to the large residential population, according to Whitehouse. 

“It’s very different to what you see and what you are talking about in New Castle County,” he noted.

Under the planned commercial district in Sussex County code, warehouses are allowed to be built in the same district as residential areas. If projects are approved in the district, the county can impose conditions of approval to mitigate any concerns, according to Whitehouse. 

Distribution centers are allowed to be built under the business research district, which is meant to be used for business research and business park uses, such as office and administrative operations. 

Advertisement
Advertisement