From Spotlight Delaware: Comp rezoning withdrawal isn’t the end of New Castle County land use debate

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

By  Karl Baker

Why Should Delaware Care?
Local opposition this past fall scuttled decades-old Comprehensive Planning processes and has forced county lawmakers to go back to consider zoning changes by individual parcel. How they choose to proceed will affect how New Castle County is developed for decades to come.

New Castle County’s biggest political firestorm in recent years erupted last fall when hundreds of concerned residents packed into government offices and local fire halls to denounce proposals for mega warehouses near Middletown, a multi-story office building in Alapocas, and hydrogen fuel facilities between Delaware City and New Castle. 

In response, County Executive Matt Meyer, who is running to be Delaware’s next governor, pulled his support for a controversial land-use plan that sat at the center of the uproar – an ordinance to rezone 87 properties across northern Delaware with a single vote of the New Castle County Council.

Despite the plan originating within his administration’s own county planning department, Meyer in January called for the comprehensive rezoning ordinance to be withdrawn.

A month later, the county council followed Meyer’s call.

Yet, despite the apparent victory for the activists, the battle over what should go where in Delaware – a question that will impact people’s lives for decades – is continuing. 

And, at the center of battle are further questions of whether a boom in warehouse construction in Delaware is in the best interest of residents.

A switch in process 

During the past month, opposition to new land-use proposals has already sprung up, with the New Castle County Council voting against an open-space zoning classification, and showing continued suspicion toward the construction of new warehouses. 

Those include a massive 2.4 million-square-foot warehouse complex proposed in 2021 for a plot of farmland next to the Bayberry community north of Middletown and a separate plan introduced Tuesday for a more modestly-sized warehouse near the Port of Wilmington. 

“New Castle County is becoming the warehouse capital of the East Coast,” lamented Councilman Penrose Hollins when discussing the Port of Wilmington warehouse on Tuesday. 

“But, at some point in time, we’ve got to give more priority to the people that live here.” 

On top of it all, the pushback against county land-use plans now is occurring against the backdrop of a looming 2024 election season in which Meyer is running a gubernatorial campaign, while his administration carries out plans to advocate for a new wave of property rezonings that they say are needed to bring the county into compliance with its guiding Comprehensive Plan document. 

The New Castle County Council has already introduced six new ordinances in recent weeks to rezone dozens of Wilmington area properties from business uses to suburban. Those include a handful of properties owned by the City of Wilmington that sit near the Brandywine Creek. 

Additional ordinances to rezone further parcels in the southern sections of the county are expected in the coming weeks.

Brian Cunningham, a spokesman for Meyer, did not answer an emailed question about whether the forthcoming ordinances would include previously controversial parcels – such as one that would accommodate a warehouse near the Whitehall community. 

Instead, Cunningham referred Spotlight Delaware to a county website that featured a slideshow presentation indicating that 13 properties will be “upzoned” as part of the new ordinances.  

Upzoning is the phrase that planners use when a property’s zoning changes to allow for a heavier presence, such as going from suburban to a business park. 

Cunningham also did not answer whether any of the proposed suburban downzonings are designed to accommodate existing plans to develop new homes, saying those answers are not “readily available.” 

Nevertheless, the county will hold a public meeting on March 25 to allow residents to review rezoning proposals that have so far been introduced. The meeting will occur between 5 and 7 p.m. at the Redding City/County building located at 800 N. French St. in Wilmington.   

Additional public meetings are expected in later weeks.

One such public meeting already occurred recently. For one attendee, the informational session soothed some concerns. 

Dale Swain, who heads a group called Residents Against Delaware’s Arbitrary Rezoning or RADAR, called the public meeting a “good format to ask questions” about the land-use changes.

Still, he said he is withholding complete judgment until further rezoning ordinances are introduced. Swain noted that particularly controversial projects should never have been lumped together in the original comprehensive rezoning proposal.   

How we got here 

The public backlash against New Castle County’s land use plans began to build last fall when residents, primarily in Alapocas and Whitehall, learned how the comprehensive rezoning ordinance would allow for the construction of commercial buildings that they feared would upset the character of their communities. 

Last October, during a normally subdued meeting of the New Castle County planning board, hundreds of residents packed into a meeting room to express their fears to county planners.   

Dozens waited in line to speak during the meeting, while others from the Whitehall community held up red signs, calling on county officials to, “Vote no! No Jamison Commerce Center Plan. No Welfare rezoning!” – referencing a planned warehouse that would be built adjacent to their community. 

A resident of Whitehall’s retirement community, the Rev. Leroy McNair, said at the meeting that he and his neighbors moved to Delaware from other states to find a comfortable and quiet retirement. Instead, they feared their communities would be overrun with hundreds of new heavy trucks traveling to and from massive, neighboring warehouses each day. 

These warehouses to be built off Jamison Corner Road by Nevada-based developer Dermody Properties remain in limbo after months of opposition from locals. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DERMODY PROPERTIES

“We cashed in the equity of our previous homes and came to Traditions at Whitehall to live out our lives as senior citizens,” McNair said. 

Like several commenters at the meeting, McNair didn’t appear satisfied with county planners’ statements that day that the rezonings were administrative moves to align county zoning with its larger comprehensive plan.

Instead, for many residents, the warehouse plans near Whitehall simply added to similar, lingering concerns over two other warehouse complexes planned for land on the other side of the U.S. Route 301 bypass, next to the Bayberry community.

One of those Bayberry warehouse projects has already received its government approval. The other is in limbo after County Councilman David Carter postponed a vote for its approval several times in past months. 

Over the subsequent months after the October meeting, additional public gatherings occurred at fire halls in Port Penn and Odessa with attendees again displaying their displeasure over the construction of warehouses.

But, at the Odessa meeting, there also appeared to be confusion over the changes that the comprehensive rezoning plan would make, and what it wouldn’t. 

At the meeting, particular condemnation was directed at the 2.4 million square feet of warehousing planned near Bayberry – even though the land for that proposal was not part of the comprehensive rezoning proposal. 

Nevertheless, several residents at the meeting called for the county to shut down all rezonings, and start again. The calls prompted County Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick to stand and tell residents at the meeting that withdrawing the rezonings would also kill a long-planned proposal to build a Wawa gas station on U.S. Route 13, north of Odessa. 

Kilpatrick’s remarks caused certain residents to pause. But others persisted. ‘Shut it down,’ one woman yelled.  

What the attendees probably didn’t know at the time was that two days before the Odessa meeting, Meyer, the county executive, had published a video on the New Castle County Facebook page announcing in surprising fashion that he would, indeed, pull his support for the comprehensive rezoning bill 

In the video, a clearly frustrated Meyer said that three years earlier his administration had organized the most “comprehensive and inclusive public process that New Castle County has ever seen.” 

It resulted in a new comprehensive land use plan, he said. The proposed rezonings, introduced last year, were designed to reflect that updated plan, he added.

But ultimately, Meyer claimed that misinformation caused the public outrage, and the ultimate downfall of the rezoning plan.  

“Today, I’ve asked the County Council to withdraw the ordinance, and I’ve asked the Department of Land Use to bring forward a new plan,” he said.

To remain informed on New Castle County’s rezoning proposals, keep an eye on its NCC2050 Comprehensive Rezoning website by clicking here.

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https://delawarebusinessnow.com/2024/04/from-spotlight-delaware-comp-rezoning-withdrawal-isnt-the-end-of-new-castle-county-land-use-debate/

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