Lawsuit targets DelDOT over Del. 1 access at South Frederica

Screenshot of a map of the two parcels JMER Properties purchased from DelDOT in 2018. The image comes from a public records request provided to the Delaware State News.

DOVER — A longtime Kent County lawyer is suing the Department of Transportation over access to several properties in the Frederica area that are planned for development.

At issue are two parcels of land located directly across Del. 1 from the DE Turf sports complex. Totaling about 11.7 acres, the land was purchased by DelDOT in 2008 for a combined $2.78 million, according to documents from the Kent County recorder of deeds. In 2018, it was sold to a group of three LLCs represented by attorney John Paradee, for $275,000, per DelDOT’s 2018 annual property report and a county deed.

The entities — JMER Properties LLC, MSK Ventures LLC and Johnny Nichols Nurseries LLC — intended to add the parcels to land they already owned to create a complex that will contain stores, a hotel and a gas station. Named Asbury Square, the 21-acre development is listed online on LoopNet for sale for $6.5 million.

According to DelDOT spokesman C.R. McLeod, the agency first bought the land in advance of the construction of an overpass for South Frederica, although the interchange was eventually built without using those parcels.

In July 2018, Mr. Paradee, who is also the registered agent for JMER Properties, approached DelDOT about buying the parcels. The properties were deemed excess land, unneeded for transportation purchases, per Mr. McLeod. State law notes the department may sell lands gained “by gift, devise, purchase or condemnation” if they are no longer useful.

No one else expressed interest, and so the agency opted to sell the lands rather than having to be responsible for maintenance, Mr. McLeod said. He added the deal allows Kent County to collect some tax revenue as the state does not pay local taxes on its properties.

According to Mr. McLeod, the sale was contingent on not allowing Del. 1 access directly to the property and thus the land had to be sold at a steep discount.

Both sides received appraisals and met somewhere in the middle, with DelDOT’s appraiser setting the value at $379,000 to $442,000, according to the property report.

“I reiterate my position that, at best, the fair market value of the 2 parcels in question is literally zero (or negative),” Mr. Paradee wrote in an email to DelDOT. “That said, my partners and I would be willing to pay DelDOT the value determined by Dover Consulting Services, Inc., inflated as it may be (because the valuation does not consider the substantial cost of gaining access to the parcels). Accordingly, my partners and I do hereby offer to purchase the 2 parcels in question for the sum of $100,000.00.”

The email was obtained through a public records request filed by Sam Chick, a Kent County resident who then provided it to the Delaware State News.

Now, Mr. Paradee is suing DelDOT in the Court of Chancery on behalf of JMER Properties, alleging the agency improperly approved an entrance for a nearby property while denying one to his clients.

According to the lawsuit, Meding’s Seafood, which is located across from the DE Turf and less than a mile from the two parcels, has agreed to sell land to Wawa for development if a new entrance from Del. 1 can be built.

The suit claims DelDOT’s Corridor Capacity Preservation Program prevents the construction of a new entrance because the existing one by the restaurant is adequate, noting a similar entrance application from JMER Properties was denied.

However, the lawsuit alleges, at the direction of Transportation Secretary Jen Cohan, the agency bent the rules to approve a preliminary traffic study for the Wawa project.

“Tellingly, Wawa has recently obtained a number of concessions, exceptions, and project approvals from DelDOT which no other developer of convenience stores has been able to obtain … suggesting that, when it comes to DelDOT approvals, Wawa receives disparately more favorable treatment than other, similarly situated project developers,” states the lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 3.

According to the litigation, Ms. Cohan overruled other agency employees, directing them to “work with” Wawa despite the fact a new entrance would pose a safety risk and is contrary to DelDOT’s past practices.

“So long as there is any prospect that DelDOT may grant approval for the proposed New Entrance to the Meding Property — in violation of the CCPP — the Petitioner’s Project cannot move forward, with the risk that various approvals for the Petitioner’s Project may expire, causing extensive economic harm to the Petitioner,” it says.

But Rob Meding, owner of Meding’s Seafood, paints a different picture. He said the restaurant cooperated with state and local authorities for years as DelDOT planned the interchange, which now sits practically a stone’s throw from the establishments.

“We worked with DelDOT by spending over $150,000 of our own money to relocate our entrance to our restaurant prior to the construction of the South Frederica overpass,” Mr. Meding said Monday.

The restaurant, which opened in 1990, has seen business drop due to construction in the area, he said, adding two other access points nearby had been closed by DelDOT.

As the family considers development options for their land, they are taking into account Kent County’s master plan, he said.

Mr. Meding noted Mr. Paradee has previously represented the family business in land-use issues.

DelDOT and Mr. Paradee also disagree on whether there was a pre-existing denial of access in the sale. The 2018 property report says access to Del. 1 will not be granted, as do emails obtained through a records request by Mr. Chick. But the lawsuit claims there was no such denial and JMER Properties “was never given a choice or option to acquire the parcels with access to or from” the major roadway.

In an email, Mr. McLeod pushed back against the lawsuit’s claims.

“The developer for the Meding property has not applied for an entrance permit. DelDOT has neither approved nor denied an entrance,” he wrote. “The developer has submitted a Traffic Impact Study. … DelDOT is reviewing the TIS. DelDOT has not issued its final TIS review letter.

“Access to roadways is governed by many factors, including the Corridor Capacity Preservation Program and the decision to grant or deny access is determined on a case by case basis. Some owners satisfy all of the criteria necessary to gain safe access to roadways that are subject to the Corridor Capacity Preservation Program and some do not.

“The Secretary supports economic development in this area so long as it can be done safely and in compliance with local, county and state law. If an entrance were approved within the frontage of the Meding property it would not violate the Corridor Capacity Preservation Program.”

Mr. Paradee acknowledged the lawsuit but declined further comment Monday.

Mr. Chick, who provided some of the documents dealing with the land purchase, issued a news release on his findings Monday, alleging the 2018 sale of two parcels indicates corruption in the executive branch.

Mr. Chick, who previously ran as a Republican for the state House of Representatives, said he became interested in the land deal last year.