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NCCo Council members question code use, Redevelopment projects examined - News Journal

Delaware government: NCCo Council members question code use

Redevelopment projects examined

The News Journal

It was never the intention of New Castle County Council to allow "redevelopment" of vacant land and vibrant office space, say a growing number of council members.

The redevelopment code was pitched as a means to encourage developers to revitalize abandoned or decaying shopping malls and gas stations. Instead, it's become a free pass for developers, said Councilman Penrose Hollins.

"I think we're at a point now where developers are being very creative in pushing the envelope," said Hollins, a Wilmington Democrat.

Three days after The News Journal profiled a major redevelopment project for the former DuPont Co. office park at Barley Mill Plaza, four council members held a closed-door meeting Wednesday with Land Use Department General Manager Dave Culver to examine all the projects approved under the code.

Councilman Bob Weiner, a Republican who once championed the ordinance as a way to fix blighted shopping centers in Brandywine Hundred, believes developers are exploiting loopholes added to the code since he co-sponsored it in 2002.

"The full impact of that change was never explained to council by the Land Use or law departments," Weiner said.

Council President Paul Clark, who has defended the code, said second-guessing by some council members is disingenuous.

"They either didn't read it when they voted for it, or they didn't go through it," Clark said. "It never said anywhere that the place had to be falling down" to qualify as redevelopment.

But the timing of some code changes has raised questions about political favors, Hollins said.

The most recent change to the code came on March 25, 2008, when the council voted 12-0 to add former and current extraction sites, such as gravel pits, to the list of properties than qualify for redevelopment.

Two days later, Stoltz Real Estate Partners filed plans to use that provision to redevelop the former Parkway gravel pit site at Del. 273 and Churchmans Road near New Castle into a commercial shopping center.

Hollins said he was unaware they were voting to change the code for Stoltz until reading about it in an Aug. 16 News Journal article.

"It just doesn't look good to the public," Hollins said. "I had no clue that someone was waiting at the threshold to come in with an application."

Other redevelopment projects that have drawn attention from Weiner, Hollins and Democratic council members Dave Tackett, Lisa Diller, Joseph Reda and John Cartier include an existing office park near Greenville and a mostly undeveloped tract of land in Bear.

Weiner and Hollins also believe the redevelopment code was misapplied in February, when the Pilot School property off Concord Pike in Talleyville was rezoned to allow for a high-density, age-restricted residential community.

For these projects, and others like them, developers receive streamlined approval, can build to a higher density and gain exemptions from some impact fees and rigorous traffic impact studies.

At Del. 141 and Lancaster Pike, Stoltz is near final approval for transforming the million-square-foot Barley Mill Plaza into 2.8 million square feet of shops, restaurants, office towers and a residential condo high-rise.

Pam Scott, Stoltz's attorney and Clark's wife, has said the plans meet code requirements and the council must approve them.

But Diller said the council shouldn't be afraid to question developers or county bureaucrats about how the code is being applied.

"It would be easy to accept the standard line that we've got to vote with Land Use," said Diller, a Newark Democrat who joined the council 18 months ago. "We're not sheep. If we have a legitimate disagreement that's based on our reading of the code, I think we're entitled to vote our conscience."

County Executive Chris Coons has contended that any attempt by the government to stop the redevelopment project would invite a lawsuit from Stoltz.

Still, Coons, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in November, has said the redevelopment ordinance needs to be revisited. As one of the original authors, Coons has said the way it's "being applied is somewhat different than what I think was initially imagined."

In recent weeks, Weiner has claimed there have been "irregularities" in the way the Land Use Department has interpreted the county code for Stoltz's projects at Barley Mill Plaza and Greenville Center.

In response to Weiner's accusations, Councilman George Smiley sponsored a resolution at a council meeting on Tuesday praising the "professionalism and dedication" of Land Use employees.

Every council member voted "yes," except Weiner, who voted "present."

First adopted in 2002 and added to the Unified Development Code, the redevelopment code has been amended four times. County attorneys have interpreted the redevelopment code to apply to virtually any property approved before 1998, when the Unified Development Code was implemented.

Some of the better-known redevelopment sites include the Hockessin Athletic Club, the site of a former mushroom farm, and the expansion of Christiana Mall, where a new Target is being built on the footprint of the old Lord & Taylor department store and a Nordstrom will replace Strawbridge's.

On Tuesday, the county Planning Board will vote on a redevelopment proposal for 32 acres at the northeast corner of U.S. 40 and Del. 7. The developer wants a rezoning from office to commercial use to build a Lowe's, a restaurant and another big box store. There is already a Lowe's across the road in the Eden Square Shopping Center.

The project has drawn the ire of redevelopment critics because no old structure will be torn down. The Land Use Department has said it qualifies for redevelopment because a small bank was built on a corner of the parcel under an old site plan.

The attorney for Eden Square dubbed the plan "paper redevelopment."

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