Change creates new challenges for Kent County

The new DE Turf sports complex and interchange, now under construction, have created new opportunities and challenges in South Frederica. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Kent County Levy Court President Brooks Banta was pumping the brake Tuesday night.

But he could not stop a request to change a 25-acre property along Del. 1, south of Frederica, from Agriculture Conservation to General Business zoning.

“It would be incumbent upon all of us to maybe catch our breath, maybe think about this, and decide what might be the appropriate use,” said Mr. Banta during the hearing.

“We need to be looking toward the future of Kent County,” said Gregg Moore of the Becker Morgan Group, who represented property owner Robert and Catherine Murphy.

“Is there a changing character of the neighborhood and does the infrastructure support the uses?”

Mr. Banta called for patience until a new Comprehensive Plan is in place next year.

But the immediate zoning request was voted on and it may very well have offered a preview of the land-use debate ahead for Kent County.

“The question for the community,” said Sarah Keifer, director of planning services for Kent County, “is do you want to develop around the interchanges? If you do, to what extent? There are clearly some people who don’t have any issue with developing all the frontage of the highway and there are other people who say, ‘I really don’t think we need to do that.’”

Ms. Keifer is heading an effort to revise and update the comprehensive plan.

The last one was printed in 2008, following the housing boom in the county. But, times have changed. Housing isn’t the big concern anymore.

The majority of voices she has heard so far are talking about the need for new jobs.

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The property rezoned Tuesday is on east side of Del. 1, brushing up against the county’s encouraged Growth Zone.

Its appeal is its proximity to the new DE Turf sports complex which came with hopes of bringing sports tourism dollars to local hotels, restaurants and other services.

Levy Court approved the change, 4-3, with a modification to keep a portion of it from impacting traffic along a country road.

Mr. Banta and Commissioner Jody Sweeney and Glen Howell voted against it. Commissioners Eric Buckson, Terry Pepper, James Hosfelt and Allan Angel voted for it.

Mr. Banta cautioned that more than 119 different uses would be allowed once the property changed to General Business.

The vote followed an interesting discussion that included thoughts on jobs, infrastructure in the area, impact on neighbors, the growth zone, existing businesses and more. Two new realities have changed the dynamic along Del. 1 in the Frederica area: The sports complex has been built and new interchanges are under construction or completed along Del. 1 in southern Kent County.

“We started this process of putting a sports complex in place,” said Commissioner Allan Angel. “We said there would be an economic boom in this area. We promised there would be hotels, restaurants coming to this area. Does everyone remember us saying that?”

Commissioner Buckson said there were no promises, just discussions.

“We saw the bigger picture and how that area was going to change, and it has,” said Mr. Angel. “Time changes everything and we have to make changes as we go along.”

Commissioner Terry Pepper noted that there are 24 businesses along the 3 1/2 miles south of the sports complex on the east side of Del. 1.

He said the last several election cycles have been ones where constituents were calling for economic development and jobs.

“It’s not feasible to have a main artery like this (Del. 1) and not allow businesses on it,” he said.

Commissioner Sweeney called for a timeout while the 2018 county Comprehensive Plan was completed.

“We need to stop and look at what it will do to the county,” said Mr. Sweeney.

Commissioner Buckson said the zoning change requested by Mr. Murphy was “in the pipeline and we have to weigh in on his application as it stands at this time.”

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The last time a property was rezoned along Del. 1 was in February. A 20-acre parcel, located on the west side of Del. 1 in the Growth Zone, had three zones within it – Agricultural Conservation, Agriculture Residential and Industrial.

Levy Court allowed it to be changed to General Business after a 5-0 vote (Commissioner Brad Eaby’s seat was vacant at the time and Commissioner Angel was absent).

At the time, Mr. Moore pointed out how the $162 million in interchange construction had changed the area.

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Ms. Kiefer and her staff are developing a revised plan based on feedback from Kent County residents.

A draft of the 2018 plan is in the works and should be released for public review in January.

Ms. Keifer said the county has already completed two surveys to get community feedback.

County residents indicated job creation (43 percent of respondents in the first survey and 38 percent in the second) topped their concerns.

The final version will likely be finished in the fall of 2018.

Concerned residents should continue to look for updates and some initial ideas being rolled out by the Planning Services department.

Ms. Keifer said Kent residents should regularly check the county website and www.facebook.com/KCLCPlanning/ for updates.

“We’re going to be pushing stuff out early and we would love for people to interact with us,” she said.

So far, the public has not been as engaged as it was a decade ago.

“We didn’t get nearly the participation that we got in 2006-2007 because the world is a different place,” she said of workshops held in the past year.

“We got good feedback. We’ve had a lot of people move into subdivisions, and what I’m hearing is that we love our neighborhood, but it’s kind of inconvenient because I don’t have commercial near me and I can’t walk to things. There’s some interest in making the suburban areas better.”

As the last comprehensive plan was drafted, houses were rising faster than corn after a July thunderstorm all across fields in the area.

“If you can remember back in the 2005-2006 time period during the build-up of houses, I don’t think it was adequately addressed what each new development was doing to the county at the time,” said Mr. Sweeney.

From 2000-2007, there were 20,411 building lots approved. By comparison, less than 10,000 lots were approved throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s combined.

(By the way, there were some interesting statistics presented by the county planners in September about subdivisions. Since the boom in lot approvals, 4,111 have been expunged; 5.325 remain on the books in undeveloped subdivisions; and 4,538 are vacant in subdivisions under development.)

“It’s incumbent upon Levy Court to manage growth in this county,” said Commissioner Sweeney to the audience that came to support or oppose the application Tuesday night.

“Please watch our website, contact our planning department, find out when those meetings are for that Comprehensive Plan and engage with what’s going on in the county.

“Don’t wait for something like this to come up before you come to Levy Court. You have an opportunity to get involved.”

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And, as always, we encourage you to share your thoughts with the Delaware State News, too.

We would love to open up our opinion page for a robust conversation on land use in the county.

Send emails to newsroom@newszap.com or leave comments under this column and/or our stories at www.delawarestatenews.net.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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