March 7,  2003

Civic leaders would like to cut a couple of things down to size or, at least, keep them down there. Topping the list are convenience stores.

Talk about size dominated most of the agenda when officers of umbrella civic groups met with County Executive Tom Gordon on Mar. 6. It centered mostly around proposals to locate new establishments along Philadelphia Pike on Penny Hill and in Claymont. Civic associations at both places are opposing the proposals.

In large part, the opposition stems from the fact that small neighborhood convenience stores, both here and elsewhere, have significantly outgrown their role as contemporary equivalents to the old corner grocery stores which proliferated in city neighborhoods. Specifically, they now include several gasoline pumps.

"It used to be that gas stations sold gas and [convenience stores] sold food. Now the gas stations [also] sell you food and the stores sell you gas," Gordon said.

That, in itself, may not bad, but the locations where that is likely to happen poses problems, he and Charles Baker, general manager of the county's Department of Land Use, agreed.

That is the nub of the community dispute over Southland Corp.'s plans to locate a Seven-Eleven outlet at Lore Avenue, midway up Penny Hill. Not only is the site hard up against a long-established residential neighborhood but the project also would require demolition of a farmhouse deemed historic and create traffic and potential noise and crime problems, according to Jonathan Husband, president of the Fox Point Association.

The traffic issue is one that Delaware Department of Transportation is reluctant to address beyond attempting to impose access and egress restrictions that, in many cases, are not observed and thereby create additional problems. Ken Murphy, president of the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association said that drivers routinely ignore no-left-turn signs or make unsafe U-turns.

Beyond that, Baker said, "DelDOT doesn't feel it can say no" when asked to approve the traffic aspects of a development plan, because of fear of an outright rejection being challenged as an illegal 'property taking'.

The solution, he said, might lie in the county's regulating certain uses, such as those that by their nature generate large volumes of traffic, in apparently inappropriate locations, such as residential neighborhoods. He also mentioned large child-care facilities in the midst of residential neighborhoods, which are not covered by requirements that they be located only on main thoroughfares, which apply to churches, schools and the like.

Under the Unified Development Code, convenience stores are permitted in areas zoned 'neighborhood commercial. That, he said, might have to be changed to reflect their current configuration and size. "Times are changing, but we don't want to let them get out of control," said Lee Hoffman, president of the Milltown-Limestone Civic Association.

Baker said his staff will look into the matter to see how it might best be handled.

On the other hand, he added, the public has demonstrated by its patronage that "there is a demand for [them] and they have to be able to go someplace" that is appropriate for them to fill their primary role as suppliers to customers in relativly small and immediate areas.

George Lossť, president of the Claymont  Community Coalition, said that reflects his group's position on plans by Wawa Food Markets to tear down  the former Brosius Eliason building at Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road and build a 'super store' there. "We have no objection to Wawa coming in. We just want it to fit in with what we're trying to do in our community," he said.

The coalition has opposed the company's plan to locate the bays containing the gasoline pumps in front of the establishment in favor of their being placed at the rear.

In a different context, Daniel Bockover, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, called at the meeting for support for that group's efforts to repeal the state law which provides for expanding New Castle County Council from its present six district members and a president elected at large to one with 12 members and a president.

"Unless we work together and stop this thing by June 30 ... the state is going to give this to you and you're going to pay for it," he said. June 30 is when the General Assembly completes its session and presumably would be the latest that it could act to change the expansion law, which goes into effect for the 2004 election.

County Council's executive committee is about to begin establishing the procedure for reapportioning the county to provide the required new districts.

Bill Narcowich, president of the Civic League for New Castle County, said that group favors enlarging Council to nine members, plus a president, to reflect the growth of the county since the present configuration was set in the 1960s. With state representatives representing districts with average populations of 13,000 people, it would be unrealistic to expect them to justify having Council members speak for an average of 83,000, he said.

Bockover took objection to that. "If you fuss around with [accepting] anything other than doubling, you're going to get doubling," he said.

He called that undesirable for several reasons, especially cost. "They will get the same pay for half the work. That is what's driving this," he said. With the number of rezoning requests significantly reduced by the development code, "they have less work to do now that they've ever had."

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