August 20, 2003

The Planning Board and Department of Land Use sided with the county administration and recommended that County Council deny historic zoning protection to the Jester Farm. But the board postponed going along with the department in favoring protection for the Weldin House until it finds out for certain what the Delaware Department of Transportation has in mind for that site.

At both locations civic activists sought so-called historic zoning overlays as a means for thwarting development plans. And in both cases, the Historic Review Board initiated the effort to obtain overlays over the objections of the respective owners.

Although Charles Baker, general manager of the land use department, sought to sidetrack any question about the review board's jurisdiction by pointing out that the matters were on the table as the result of County Councilman Robert Weiner's having introduced rezoning ordinances, which he clearly has the authority to do under the Unified Development Code, Planning Board member Joseph Maloney chided the Historic Review Board for, in effect, not being a team player with respect to Jester Farm. "There is a lack of communication and coordination between the Historic Review Board and other departments of county government," he said.

Much of the basis for the land use department's recommendation was the Department of Special Services' contention that an historic zoning overlay could raise complications at an unspecified future time when the county gets ready to determine the ultimate use of the 25-acre former farm property, which lies between Grubb Road and the community of Chalfonte. It was acquired in 1973 as parkland. County Executive Tom Gordon has given public assurance that the farmhouse will not be demolished and that no development will be undertaken except through an open process with public participation.

"It is [in] the county's purview to make that decision, not the Historic Review Board's," said Planning Board member Sandra Anderson with reference to future development. Historic overlay zoning does not alter the basic zoning classification of a property, but does give the Historic Review Board the final say over development plans based on their effect on the perceived historic integrity of the property.

The land use department also declared in its recommendation that the ultimate plan to develop the park "should rest with the public and their elected officials."

"Despite the current county executive's decision, I'm concerned [that] some future county executive will want to demolish the house," said Planning Board member Mark Weinberg. "An historic overlay is not an onerous restriction on future development of a park." Weinberg, who lives in Brandywine Hundred, subsequently was the only one who voted against the board's  recommending denial of historic protection.

In its recommendation, the department cited the Historic Review Board's contention that the farmhouse is "a well-preserved example of the moderate-sized farmsteads that once dominated Brandywine Hundred." It also noted that Gordon has publicly supported establishing a resident curator program in the county and identified the Jester property as potentially the first place it will be used. In return for restoring the building, maintaining it and agreeing to some public access, a volunteer curator would be able to live there rent-free and tax-free.

Anderson dismissed references to extensive community support for an historic overlay. "The people signed the petitions to preserve a property they didn't even know was a county park to keep the soccer kids out," she said. There were reports that the Concord Soccer Association sought development of the perk with playing fields, but that organization has said it will not pursue that in the face of community opposition.

While the Planning Board was agreeable to trust county government's long-term stewardship at the Jester property, it was reluctant to do so with DelDOT's much shorter-term involvement with the Weldin House. "I'm uncomfortable with voting on something with that degree of uncertainty," said member June MacArtor.

DelDOT is in the process of following through on a stated intention to purchase the house and surrounding 1 1/3 acres on Philadelphia Pike half way up the slope of Penny Hill from Carol Harrington, who originally sought to sell it to become the site of a Seven-Eleven convenience store and gasoline station.

Harrington had objected to an historic overlay; DelDOT officials have said they have no problem with one on the house, but they want the ability to subdivide the property and sell off the portion adjacent to Lore Avenue for commercial development acceptable to the community. Although the officials have not been specific, they have indicated that the department would look to have the house renovated either as a residence or 'adaptive reuse' of a commercial nature.

Friends of Penny Hill, an organization formed to oppose the Seven-Eleven plan, supported an historic overlay on the house while saying it had no objection to commercial use of the rest of the property. The proposed rezoning ordinance as it now stands covers the entire property, but County Council could amend it to make it less encompassing.

MacArtor did say that she thought Harrington's objections, which were based mostly on the premise that  historic zoning would lower the property's sale value, were answered by DelDOT's stated intention to pay 'fair market value' based on an appraisal which considered the property as not having an overlay. That will happen if the appraisal is made, as expected, before County Council acted on the rezoning ordinance.

Baker said the department's recommendation to recommend the rezoning was based on the assumption that DelDOT's plan to sell a portion of the property would result in commercial development in compliance with its present zoning for neighborhood-scale commercial use. The department would have no jurisdiction over any DelDOT highway improvements at the intersection of the pike with Lore Avenue and Marsh Road.

Maloney also criticized the Historic Review Board for "not doing its homework" with regard to whether the historic overlay should be placed on just the house or the entire property, which also contains buildings once used for a donut shop and a sandwich shop.

He also questioned why DelDOT was purchasing the property. To that, Baker responded, "I'm not going to answer that."

Following a decision by the Fox Point Association, an umbrella civic organization of which Friends of Penny Hill is a component, to support a state-initiated economic development proposal to located a Bank One communications center on nearby Governor Printz Boulevard, Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward pledged to do what he could to support the community on the Seven-Eleven issue. DelDOT later determined that the chain's plan posed a serious safety hazard at the intersection.

The Planning Board voted to table a motion to recommend an historic overlay on just the Weldin House, at least a month to see how the DelDOT acquisition works out. In the discussion leading up to that vote, it was apparent that the rezoning had the support of a majority of, if not the entire, board.

Baker told members that their postponing action would still leave time to make a recommendation before County Council is due to act on rezonings -- which it now does only three times a year -- in October. Weinberg noted that that could result in speeding up the acquisition because "there is nothing like a deadline to make things happen."

The motion to table also drew seven votes, with Anderson being the only member opposed. The land use department recommendation favoring rezoning is not affected by the delay.

In an uncontested  third case involving an historic overlay, both the department and Planning Board recommended that Council grant one on the Holloday house on Briars Lane off Kennett Pike in Greenville. C.P.S. Investors plans to convert that structure into offices while preserving its exterior.

2003. All rights reserved.

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