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Revised NCCo redevelopment code draws ire; Misuse will continue, critics say - News Journal

Written by ADAM TAYLOR 

An attempt to change New Castle County's controversial redevelopment code is being met with suspicion and opposition by residents and members of council who say it is too weak.

Council President Tom Kovach and Councilman Bob Weiner said the changes would do nothing to fix the practice of "paper redevelopment," a phrase that describes the misuse of the code by builders of new-construction projects in order to get redevelopment perks such as a waiver of traffic studies and lower permit fees.

"For some reason, the county wants to give people the same credit for developing a greenfield as they do for true redevelopment projects like the Tri-State Mall and Merchants Square Shopping Center," Kovach said.

County Land Use General ManagerDavid Culver's staff wrote the ordinance at the request of Councilmen Joe Reda and Dave Tackett. Culver rejects the notion that the redevelopment code has ever been misused. So he called the changes "clarifications." But he conceded that the new ordinance likely won't prevent builders from gaining redevelopment status on parcels that have never, or only partially, been developed.

"This just tightens up the code," Culver said. "Some sections weren't clear enough."

The proposed changes would still allow developers to get credit for undeveloped projects that received county approval years ago, Culver said. In exchange for getting that credit:

•The new ordinance would require developers to add more amenities and infrastructure, such as landscaping, stormwater and other improvements, to the property than what is currently required.

•Also, under the proposed changes, redevelopment projects couldn't make already clogged intersections worse.

•Developers also would be given fewer perks for making improvements such as parking spaces for disabled people, installation of bicycle parking racks and planting trees.

The redevelopment code, adopted in 2002, was designed to give builders incentives to revitalize old shopping centers, gas stations and brownfields instead of building new projects on farmland or wooded tracts.

"At the end of the day, my intent is to encourage occupancy in these dilapidated shopping centers," Tackett said. "That's never going to happen if we keep on giving redevelopment approval to let people build something new."

Former County Executive Chris Coons has said the code was too liberally applied. Weiner said the Land Use Department gives developers "irregular approvals" for redevelopment status that should not qualify for it. The approvals allow developers to exploit loopholes in the code for projects on mostly virgin land, Weiner said.

The ordinance will be reviewed by a state planning agency and the county Planning Board before it comes to a council vote in June, Culver said.

Weiner, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, is so opposed to the Tackett-Reda proposal, he drafted an ordinance he said will address the paper redevelopment issue head-on. Weiner said his proposal would not give developers credit for old plans that were never built.

"Green spaces, never before developed, should not get favorable treatment in the process," Weiner said.

The project that first exposed the controversy over redevelopment, Stoltz Real Estate Partners' project at Barley Mill Plaza, is expected to be filed under redevelopment status by the end of the month. After first proposing 2.8 million square feet of offices, restaurants, shops and condominiums, Stoltz is applying for a 1.6 million-square-foot commercial and office complex at Barley Mill. That plan would not be subject to the new requirements in Tackett's proposed ordinance if passed because the Stoltz plan will likely be filed before the ordinance is voted on.

Weiner's ordinance would prohibit any projects from being grandfathered.

Bob Valihura, a leader of Citizens for Responsible Growth, which recently negotiated the scaled-down Barley Mill Plaza plan, said the group would not comment on which redevelopment-reform proposal it prefers.

The ordinance could open up new benefits for the developers of the proposed Governor's Square III shopping Center at U.S. 40 and Del. 7 in Bear, however. DelleDonne & Associates first applied for redevelopment status, then withdrew that request. The only building on the 37-acre site is a small bank, which residents said means the property should not qualify as a redevelopment project, Weiner said.

The Delaware Department of Transportation recently denied DelleDonne's request for a waiver to perform a traffic-impact study. Some think the proposed changes to the redevelopment ordinance could provide DelleDonne with another way to skirt having to do the study.

"I'm concerned that the Reda redevelopment ordinance amendment is really another attempt by [Councilman George] Smiley to give Governor's Square III special treatment to get approved ... " said attorney Mark Dunkle, who represents a business across the street from the DelleDonne site that is opposed to another shopping center in the area.

DelleDonne's attorney, Larry Tarabicos, said his client has no intention of reapplying for redevelopment status.

"We're no longer redevelopment, and we're not going to be redevelopment," Tarabicos said.

Smiley said he would not support the Governor's Square III project if DelleDonne applied for redevelopment status if the Tackett-Reda ordinance passes.

Nearby resident Julie Davis said she's still worried about the ordinance because she doesn't trust Tarabicos or Smiley to keep their word.

"Residents around here didn't just fall off the pickle boat," she said. "We've been lied to before about this project and we think this ordinance could be a way to get around DelDOT's requirement for them to do a traffic study."

Kovach said he thinks the county is misusing the redevelopment ordinance and worries that the Reda-Tackett ordinance could prolong the problem.

"The county likes to give builders bonuses for not using their old approved plans that they never built," Kovach said. "That has some value, but it's not redevelopment."

Resident Christine Whitehead said there is no way of knowing how many old approved plans are on the books and she is concerned that dozens of plans could get improper redevelopment approvals.

"If they pass this ordinance, they might as well get rid of the entire Unified Development Code," Whitehead said. "This would certainly open the door wide for all kinds of potential mischief."

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