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8/29/2010
Delaware growth: Chateau Country squabble gets nasty - News Journal

Delaware growth: Chateau Country squabble gets nasty

NCCo council president claims councilman is 'charging up rich folks'

By CHAD LIVENGOOD
The News Journal

The debate over development projects that could alter northern Delaware's skyline has unleashed a bitter dispute among New Castle County Council members over not only the region's affluent Chateau Country but the future of growth across the county.

In an interview with The News Journal, Council President Paul Clark accused Republican Councilman Bob Weiner of playing "hypocritical" political games by attacking a redevelopment code Weiner helped create. Clark, a Democrat, said Weiner's attacks are meant to spur campaign donations from wealthy residents of northern Delaware.

For two years, Weiner has spoken against a developer's plans to nearly triple the size of the Barley Mill Plaza complex at Del. 141 and Lancaster Pike and construct a 180-foot residential tower along Kennett Pike in Greenville.

"Unfortunately, it's become political," Clark said. "You got Weiner out there charging up the rich folks. And it's going on and on and on."

The dispute has motivated residents of Chateau Country -- some of whom are among Delaware's wealthiest -- to band together, set up a hefty legal fund and challenge the county's interpretations of its land-use regulations.

The crux of the debate is Stoltz Real Estate Partners' plans to erect a 12-story residential tower in Greenville Center and raze the DuPont Co. office park at Barley Mill Plaza and replace it with 2.8 million square feet of stores, restaurants, office and hotel space.

But the struggle is not isolated among the influential or political. Residents around the county are asking whether regulatory accommodations for the Greenville projects could be used at developments in their neighborhoods.

Stoltz's use of the Unified Development Code has triggered new scrutiny from civic groups and County Council members about how the code is applied to various projects across the county.

DelleDonne & Associates filed under the redevelopment code its plan to construct a new Lowe's, a restaurant and another big-box discount retailer on mostly vacant land at U.S. 40 and Del. 7 in Bear.

Citizens for Responsible Growth, which first formed in Greenville, has gotten involved in this dispute, arguing the developer's redevelopment proposal could be precedent-setting.

"Every applicant is going to find an un-built site, and they're going to use paper redevelopment to do an end run" on the system, said Mark Dunkle, a Dover attorney representing the owners of Eden Square Shopping Center, which is across the road from the DelleDonne site. If approved, Eden Square could lose its anchor tenant, Lowe's.

County Councilman Penrose Hollins was unaware that developers could use vacant land to qualify for redevelopment and believes "it leaves too much room for abuse."

Citizens for Responsible Growth members from Greenville and nearby neighborhoods on the western edge of Wilmington bristled at the suggestion by Clark that the dispute over redevelopment is a type of class warfare. It is based, they say, on concerns among people of varying economic levels who want to have a say in what their neighborhoods become.

"To suggest that four or five people came down from their chateaux to oppose this thing is completely inaccurate," said Tom Dewson, a DuPont Co. employee who lives in Greenville near the site of the proposed 12-story tower. "We do not consider ourselves wealthy. We are working people like you are."

CRG pulling in lots of money

Du Pont heiress Patty Hobbs said she didn't need Weiner to get charged up when she started Citizens for Responsible Growth, which has focused most of its energy on Stoltz's plans for Barley Mill Plaza and Greenville Center.

"If this goes through, it's just going to destroy the entire state," Hobbs said.

CRG leaders say they have a broad base of support from civic groups across New Castle County that have joined its ranks in opposition to dense development plans.

Chief among CRG's supporters is the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, an umbrella group of 104 civic associations representing 80,000 residents who live between the Brandywine and the Delaware River and north of the Wilmington city limits.

"It is not Bob Weiner waving the flag and trying to gin up support for something he opposes," said Bob Valihura, president of CCOBH and a former GOP state representative. "It's not just that [the development threat is] in Greenville or in the heart of Chateau Country. It is threatening the entire county."

Stoltz's projects are "the No. 1 topic" of concern at all of the civic association meetings he attends, Valihura said.

With CCOBH included, Hobbs said, CRG's grass-roots following is 100,000 strong, with donations for a legal fund to possibly sue the county now flowing in from across Delaware and even Pennsylvania.

"I don't know half the people who have sent money in," she said.

CRG leaders say the reason for the concern is simple: Stoltz's projects, if approved, could be the beginning of filling northern Delaware with the densely packed development that's common in northern New Jersey.

"If these projects go through unchallenged, unchecked ... then these problems are coming to an open space or shopping center near you -- soon," said Valihura, who also is acting chairman of CRG.

CRG's attorneys have questioned the legality of Stoltz constructing a tower at Greenville Center. They say the county is bending the law by allowing Stoltz to construct the tower by using a provision in the code meant for enlarging an existing structure, not building a new one.

The group also has raised questions about why the Delaware Department of Transportation did not require Stoltz to conduct a traffic-impact study, which can be used to require road improvements from the developer.

Most large-scale developments involve intense traffic analysis, but because Barley Mill has been classified as redevelopment, it is enjoying less-stringent scrutiny. DelDOT makes recommendations about traffic improvements, but only the county can enforce those suggestions, said agency Secretary Carolann Wicks.

County officials, in turn, have clung to a Delaware Supreme Court ruling to justify not requiring a traffic-impact study. The 2009 decision over a development at the former Sears building on Del. 273 and Eagle Run Road affirmed that the county's redevelopment code doesn't require a traffic-impact study.

Ignoring the court's guidance would invite a lawsuit from Stoltz, said County Executive Chris Coons.

It's 'old-school,' Weiner says

Weiner dismisses Clark's charge that Stoltz's projects impact only "a few rich folks" in Greenville and other affluent neighborhoods.

He also believes that Clark is improperly involving himself in the debate.

Clark has publicly remained on the sidelines of Stoltz development issues because his wife, Pam Scott, is the Pennsylvania developer's attorney. Clark also has said he will recuse himself from any vote on Stoltz's projects.

But Weiner and CRG allege he's managing the issue from behind the scenes.

Weiner suggests Clark is using his position to enrich himself and his wife, who is paid by Stoltz to navigate its projects through the county's codes.

"It is perceived that [hiring Pam Scott] may give them direct access to Paul Clark and the influence he has with other members of council and the land-use department," Weiner said. "Paul is a walking conflict of interest."

In response to a profile of Stoltz's projects in last week's Sunday News Journal, Clark said property-rights laws allow owners to develop their land however they see fit as long as they comply with building-code requirements.

Clark contends Weiner is deceiving his constituents by opposing development projects made possible by the very same high-density "smart growth" legislation that Weiner has championed for years.

"That's what frustrates us, is he's being hypocritical," Clark said. "It's playing to the audience and it's obvious."

He said Weiner's opposition is an act staged to attract campaign contributions from outside his council district.

"Bob Weiner is P.T. Barnum. He is the ultimate showman," Clark said.

At Barley Mill Plaza, Stoltz is using a redevelopment code that Weiner helped craft. At Greenville Center, which is in Weiner's 2nd District, the developer is utilizing mixed-use provisions of county code that Weiner sought as more pedestrian-friendly than traditional strip malls where people drive to shop.

"Every one of these pieces of legislation he's voted for, sponsored, spoke favorably for," Clark said.

Weiner, a part-time attorney, describes himself as a "student of smart growth and new urbanism," a planned development concept that promotes walkable communities where people can "live, work, play and pray" -- a line Weiner constantly recites.

Stoltz's plans at Barley Mill include a series of shops and restaurants facing Del. 141, with eight- and nine- story office and residential towers in the back of the property near the Westover Hills, Westhaven and West Park neighborhoods.

Brad Coburn, managing director of Stoltz, has said the current proposal's layout will not generate the type of traffic a traditional mall does because people will theoretically live, work or dine on the same parcel.

Weiner said Stoltz's plan doesn't follow the new urbanism doctrine because the towering buildings would be out of character with the surrounding community.

"The Stoltz organization is old-school," Weiner said. "All they know how to build is a 20th century sea of asphalt ... designed to bring Pennsylvanians here to avoid sales tax."

Economic impact debated

Weiner's opposition movement has been tinged with a form of economic elitism that views retail jobs as bad for the state if it causes traffic congestion from out-of-state shoppers, Clark said.

"Are we going to let our citizens basically stay unemployed and see the kind of foreclosure sales we're seeing and have the county balance its budget on foreclosure sales?" asked Clark, a former Boscov's manager. "Somewhere along the line, what we have to weigh is, 'Is an extra 30 seconds at a stoplight worth a job?' "

But some residents question the need for more commercial, office and residential space in New Castle County, with space in downtown Wilmington, along the waterfront, in Ogletown and elsewhere already sitting empty.

"I think we need another shopping mall like we need a recession," said Fran Newell, a Hercules retiree who has lived in a modest ranch-style home on Dickinson Lane behind Barley Mill Plaza since 1965, when the land was still a DuPont airfield.

Weiner's Democratic opponent, Mike Annone, said Weiner's actions -- such as urging CRG to sue the county and state -- has cost the 2nd District service industry jobs in construction, retail and hospitality. He points to Weiner blocking another mixed-use development Stoltz proposed in 2008 at U.S. 202 and Beaver Valley Road that could have brought a Whole Foods store to the area.

"I believe we're not having growth in our area of the district because of Mr. Weiner," said Annone, an Amtrak safety officer who lives in Brandywood, a neighborhood off Naamans Road. "People are unhappy with that."

Clark maintains Weiner was for smart growth in other parts of New Castle County -- such as Claymont -- before he was against it in the Greenville area.

In February, Weiner tried to hold up the rezoning of Pilot School along U.S. 202 in Talleyville, objecting to use of the redevelopment code to create high-density housing for residents 55 and older.

The developer proposed putting the higher-density units near U.S. 202 and blending single-family units on the back side of the property with an existing neighborhood.

Clark said it was a "textbook case" of Weiner not following his own new urbanism principles. The rezoning was eventually approved.

Some civic activists also have taken notice of Weiner's complicity in letting a massive project like Barley Mill Plaza be proposed.

"That's what's comical," said Bob Williams, a Weiner critic and Brookmeade resident. "He's Mr. Smart Growth."

Williams said he's tried to convey to Greenville residents that Weiner is "the architect of what is happening to you," but few have listened.

Weiner blames county bureaucrats and attorneys for not fully explaining the impact of the redevelopment code on established communities.

Dewson, the DuPont employee, said he thinks Clark and others in county government are trying to divert attention from the larger issues at hand.

"Frankly, the reason that they're turning up the heat on Bob Weiner is Bob Weiner was the only voice in the wilderness who would listen and engage with the community," Dewson said.

Additional Facts
IF YOU GO
 
WHAT: Citizens for Responsible Growth in New Castle County is planning a community forum on Stoltz Real Estate Partners' projects.

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 23

WHERE: A.I. du Pont High School, 3130 Kennett Pike, Greenville

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