Enterprise Zone Group hopes to encourage more retail activity

By Lynn R. Parks

The downtown Seaford area could be getting a whole new zoning. At the last meeting of the Seaford City Council, members of MainStreet, a volunteer organization working for the improvement of High Street and surrounding areas, presented plans for a riverfront enterprise zone that would ban gas stations and warehouses and promote small retail shops. "I think it's a great idea," said Mayor Dan Short. "It is based on older buildings and will allow certain things that current zoning does not allow to meet the needs of downtown Seaford." The new zone, C-3, would apply along High Street and along Middleford Road from High Street to the bridge at East Poplar Street. South boundary is the Nanticoke River and north boundary is King Street.

According to Robert Palmer, chairman of MainStreet's design committee, two facets of the proposed zoning change would boost the ability of the downtown area to attract business: elimination of the requirement that requests for variances in the parking ordinance go before the planning and zoning commission and permission to use 100 percent of a lot for construction on High Street.
-Current zoning laws require that stores have one parking space for every 200 square feet of floor space and one parking space for every two employees. Restaurants have to have one space per 50 square feet of serving area and one for every two employees. Requests for variances are reviewed and voted on by the planning and zoning commission and, if recommended, reviewed and voted on by the town council.
Under the proposal, requests for variances would go directly before city council. "It is our intent that it would be an automatic approval," said Palmer. He added that the parking requirements were not completely eliminated from the law in case parking in the downtown area becomes a problem. "Take for example businesses that want to come in on the river side of High Street," said George Ruff, chairman of the MainStreet economic development committee. "They wouldn't have to worry about making sure that there is enough off-street parking. That would encourage development."

Current zoning laws allow new construction on High Street to cover 100 percent of the lot. The C-3 proposal would keep that, requiring only a 3-foot setback from the rear property line. New buildings could be no more than three stories. Fire marshal requirements regarding fire walls and distance between outside walls with windows would still apply. Palmer said that the lot at the corner of High and Market streets, until recently the home of The Guide building, was covered 90 percent by that building. Allowing a developer to build to 100 percent would "improve his investment per square foot of property," he said. Construction off of High Street but still in the C-3 zone would be limited to 40 percent of the lot. Current zoning law has the same limit.

The proposal dictates 14 uses of property that would automatically be allowed: retail and specialty stores, retail food stores such as bakeries, candy stores and gourmet meat shops, restaurants (excluding drive-ins), financial institutions, medical and professional offices, service establishments such as hair salons, interior decorators, art and music studios and catering, government offices, libraries, museums and art galleries, churches, schools, day-care and preschool facilities, bed and breakfasts and stock brokerage firms. Apartments would be allowed above commercial businesses. Churches would be permitted only in buildings constructed specifically for a church.

Exceptions could be granted for the following uses: movie theaters, drive-up windows for financial institutions, outdoor eateries, single-or multi-family dwellings, parking lots, travel agencies, telemarketing firms, retail cleaning firms and employment agencies. Not allowed would be gas stations and car washes, pawn shops, industrial or manufacturing facilities, warehouses, "big box" retail stores, tattoo parlors and stores providing adult entertainment or drug paraphernalia.

According to Ruff, any business already established in the zone that does not fit in with the new requirements would be "grandfathered in," or allowed to remain. If a building that is being used in a way that does not comply with the zoning regulations is abandoned for six months, use of the building by the new tenant will then have to comply.

In the specific case of a storefront or residential structure that is being used as a church, use of that building will have to comply with the zoning immediately after the church leaves the building. No other place of worship will be allowed to be located in that spot. The zoning proposal also addresses business signs. Public information signs will conform to the architectural style of the downtown area, building numbers will have to be visible and businesses will use shingles in the style of the area. Signs painted on sides of buildings will be permitted providing that they pertain to the building on which they are painted. Installation of neon signs will require permission of the city council. Except for those posted at churches and schools, signs in residential areas will be banned.

Ruff, co-owner of Messick Ruff and Co., an accounting firm on Cannon Street, said that the city started the process of designing a new zoning proposal about five years ago. "But the city was going through so many changes, it got put on the back burner," he said. The MainStreet organization, an all-volunteer group funded by the city, revived it about two and a half years ago. "We held three open meetings for residents," he said, the first one of which was held about a year ago. At the second meeting, participants voted to form a committee of five, including Ruff and Palmer, to draft a proposal to present to the group. Ruff said that the process met with the approval of downtown business owners and residents, once they realized that the intent of the proposal was not to make the area a historic district.
"They didn't want somebody telling them what color they could paint their buildings, what siding they could use or what doors they could put in," added Palmer. "But we hope developers will be in tune with the period of the sidewalk improvements." Charles Anderson, city building official, said that he is pleased that the zoning proposal was designed by business owners and residents of the area. "In essence, they are policing themselves," he said. "That will make the ordinance easier to enforce, because the people had a hand in it. The city will not be trying to force something on them."

Palmer said that initially, the new zoning will help MainStreet most in its marketing efforts. And Ruff envisions that within five years, all the storefronts will be filled and "we will start to see progress into the side streets."
Ruff added, "I see maybe a boutique, more restaurants and specialty clothing stores. I see something similar to Easton's downtown area. It was not too different from Seaford. We want a fairly good mix of businesses that complement each other." "We are not trying to create a resort town," added Palmer, who lives on West King Street and is a civil engineer with Davis, Bowen and Friedel, Salisbury. "But we are trying to help our area businesses. We are trying to preserve a viable resource. I see a downtown dying, and it hurts me."
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