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Friday, February 26, 2021

Barley Mill: From Both Sides

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Thomas Lehman
Thomas Lehman
Tom Lehman is a Managing News editor at the Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper. He is a senior studying English, along with minors in Journalism and Interactive Media.

After a proposed 2.8 million square feet property plan by Stoltz Real Estate Partners at the DuPont Barley Mill site met with significant community resistance, Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) emerged as the lead organization working first to oppose, then reduce, the original Stoltz plans. CRG was instrumental in negotiating a compromise plan (1.6 million square feet); however, some civic leaders and organizations remain strongly opposed to the new plans, citing concerns about traffic and quality of life. TSD recently sat down to speak with civic leaders on both sides of the Stoltz/Barley Mill debate.

 

Mark Blake is the vice president of GHADA, the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association, which opposes the CRG-supported compromise.

TSD: Many of the community groups say they have not been involved in the discussions. Can you give some background to the amount of involvement GHADA has had?

MB: Milltown, Limestone, the Civic League of New Castle County and GHADA were approached at the beginning by CRG once it was formed. We were asked for our input and to lend support. We responded that we would, because of our extensive experience in land use, going back almost 50 years.

We attended some of the first formative meetings and some of the other meetings and reiterated that we wanted to be part of the discussions, and that didn’t happen. Their [CRG] intentions were good, but we felt like they only wanted our support as cheerleaders and our money.

We were only invited to meetings where they were going to be providing one-sided commentary, [where they said] ‘this is what we’ve been working on with Mr. Stoltz, he only wants to deal with us, he doesn’t want to deal with all these people. We’ve reached a compromise that we feel is workable.’

We are interested in being involved more than just financially.

CRG was developed for this issue, where as [other community groups] and GAHDA have been around for decades. We deal with all issues, and we’re not a one-trick pony and will continue to be around after CRG fades into the sunset and this project is either rezoned or denied.

 

TSD: What kind of consequences would the compromise approach have on the community – both financially and otherwise?

MB: [The compromise] is like me telling you, ‘I want you to do all these things to your home, and by the way, I’m gonna do things to mine but you’re going to pay for it too. It makes no sense whatsoever.’

Stoltz took an investment risk; if it paid off, if the economy stayed strong, we wouldn’t be in this situation with the rezoning request. He would be renting and leasing the office regional space with no problem. His investment didn’t pay off and now he’s looking for the taxpayers of Delaware to sort of bail him out.

And I equate it to, when I check my 401K, my retirement plan and my personal investments, no one has offered to me to bail me out. I took a risk, it didn’t work, and we all took a hit. But in the world of developers, they can go to the board of adjustments and any board for county or state and get a recovery on their stake. Unfortunately, that money is taxpayer money.

It could be hundreds of millions of dollars to correct the traffic impact of that area.

 

TSD: The proposed compromise would bring several jobs to the state. Why do those who oppose the compromise believe it would be negative?

MB: They’re usually service level jobs. There’s a dichotomy, of do you want better jobs, or better paying, more specialized jobs. I hate to use the term ‘Walmart’ but the question is, do you want service jobs, or something that caters to more specialized fields.

I’ll be a little more blunt, I don’t know too many 18-20 year olds who are buying houses after they get out of college and high school, and that’s not a sustainable model. It’s a tough thing to say that you don’t want more jobs, [but in this case] adding more doesn’t really help.

Also, if you take if from an office park and then you change it to a commercial development you’re not going to get that office park feel back, that’s what a lot of people like.

 

TSD: Going forward, what message do you have for CRG and others involved with this issue?

MB: The big thing is I think people are still going to want to work with the developer, he [Keith Stoltz] has not been as approachable as he could be, given his contact with CRG, and there are a lot of good ideas that could let everybody win.

Neither one gets the perfect result, but both get a solution that benefits both sides.

Even if he goes forward with the mega plan, as we called it, it may not even be Stoltz who builds it, but at the end we’re stuck with what’s there.

I didn’t hear anybody at the planning board meeting say, we don’t want any development, I heard that we wanted smart development. The groups were never opposed to development; they were opposed to the rezoning from OR to CR. Development is going to happen, but they do not have a right to rezone.

I can see both sides of the issue, but it’s kind of like Tom Dewson said at the Planning & Development meeting. It feels like we’re being asked if we want to jump off the Commodore Barry, or the Delaware Memorial, there’s no middle ground.

That’s kind of our reality. We think the planning board did the right thing.

(Last Tuesday, the New Castle County Planning Board recommended that the City Council deny the rezoning in October. The County’s Land Use Department voted to recommend the plan to City Council, indicating that reception to the plan remains split.)

 

John Danzeisen is a CRG leader and president of the Kennett Pike Association, which negotiated the compromise and supports its approval.

TSD: Can you give some background on how CRG got involved with this issue?

JD: There were four different projects proposed by Stoltz, going back to 2008 and they were pretty jarring to the community, and CRG was formed as a response.

They were by-right proposal, as long as the developer follows every aspect of the unified code, there’s nothing that could be done about it, but couldn’t find any reason to stop the by-right process.

In fact, Senator Coons said “bring me a legal way to stop these, and I’ll find a way to stop them from doing this.”

Finally in September in 2010, Stoltz and Coons announced a compromise; during the period from 2008 to 2010 the community had developed an alternative plan — this was a downsized plan that got rid of tall buildings and reduced the traffic impact of these buildings, and asked these things, while they were delighted with them, they still wanted some more protection.

We went to Stoltz and negotiated a series of deed restrictions in favor of the community that
would address pretty much all of their concerns.

For instance the property size was reduced from 2.8 million square feet to 1.2, decreasing it from 1.6 million.

We also got restrictions that said there would be no buildings bigger than 4 stories, garages more than 30 feet, there’s to be no fast food restaurants there, there’s to be no 24 hour stores there–all the things we were hearing from the community.

 

TSD: Why do some community groups feel that they were not invited to be a part of the negotiations or were let out?

JD: I think it’s a little unfair to say that we excluded people. We tried to involve everyone. I’ve put more than 1000 hours into this and so has Dick Beck, we’ve had public meetings that we organized and held at people’s houses.

I know a lot of groups didn’t like the final outcome, but that’s not to say we didn’t include them, but we tried, we had public meetings, we had a website, we sent out newsletters, I had my email in them.

 

TSD: A major point of contention has been the issue of traffic, how did CRG try to address this issue?

JD: We actually hired a nationally recognized traffic engineering firm called Orth-Rogers, they’re a highly regarded traffic engineering firm. They did some original studies on the original plan, that traffic was going to be impacted dramatically and we talked about that with the community

It’s a bit technical, and it takes a lot to go through the data, traffic impact is measured
through peak hours, there is a different traffic block associated with an office building and a retail store.

We had them look at the compromise, and they said that traffic would be dramatically down.

It’s natural that you would see a decrease on the traffic, even on the down sized projects would be significant, and we never gave up on traffic, we said to Stoltz that we were going to push you to do a story on traffic and take responsibility for the effects, not saddle the community with it.

 

TSD: Why does CRG believe that Stoltz would go back to his original plan, instead of the compromise?

JD: Well, look at it this way: If you own a house in New Castle County and want to build a shed, if it is under 10 feet and it has to fit certain guidelines, than you’re allowed to build it.

Those rights [at Barley Mill] include buildings that are up 108 feet, and we protested against it. They said that they were quite happy with their original plans, they don’t need any community support. They don’t need any rezoning, and they are within the regulations with it. It was the community and the politicians who talked to Stoltz, and he took a lot of the height away from the project.

In order to compensate, he was going to build these pad sites. [A pad site] might be a McDonalds or gas station somewhere and those pad sites rent for a very high value.

He said, “if I’m going to take the height and density out, I want to build pad sites.

We said “well that’s okay but we don’t want fast food, convenience stores, gas stations,” but he does have a right to go back to the original plans.

The choice for us was, large towering office buildings with a lot of traffic impact or [the compromise] with less traffic impact.

 

TSD: What response do you have to those that oppose the compromise and what message would you try to send to them?

JD: I respect, absolutely and totally respect [their position].I never expected that everybody would be pleased with the development; it’s hard for CRG to even say that we like this development.

If we could wave a wand, we would stop the whole development, but we’re a country of laws and you have to respect them.

I’m with them, I’m with the opposition, but we have laws and they allow people to do certain things with their properties, and we’ve been challenging it for three years.

We’ve been asking [people who opposed the compromise], what do you think is the alternative to the compromise, and you have to describe it.

The idea that it could be some kind of medical office complex [has been suggested], but it has already been pursued by Alan Levin and his office (Economic Development). While [someone] might suggest that, it might seem a little unrealistic.

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UD ramps up restrictions designed keep COVID cases from continuing to climb

The university brought 4,000 students back to campus for spring and one of the new rules says they are not allowed to have visitors.

New program allows people to dine out and help raise money for Do More 24 campaign

Restaurants will offer specials, and a portion of the sales will be donated, but that portion will be paid by a sponsor.

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The 132-pound weight class may be the most exciting, with two former state champions in the bracket.
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