October 15, 2003

Friends of Penny Hill, which started life a year ago as an ad hoc community group undertaking a proverbial mission impossible, emerged victorious from the final round of its uphill battle.

New Castle County on Oct. 14 officially designated the Weldin House, on Philadelphia Pike north of its intersection with Marsh Road and Lore Avenue, an historic property. Just before the unanimous vote, it was revealed that Delaware Department of Transportation has successfully completed negotiations to buy the 1.38-acre property with a view to improving the intersection and selling the house to be renovated and put to a use that will preserve it indefinitely.

Michelle Reed, president of the organization, told Council that preservation of the house is "essential" to preserving the character of not only Penny Hill but the entire Philadelphia Pike corridor. The highway is presently under consideration for designation as an historic route and will be included

in the Delaware portion of the Washington-Rochambeau trail being developed by the National Park Service to commemorate the decisive Revolutionary War battle of Yorktown. That occured about the time the first part of Weldin House was built.

"It is unthinkable that such a house would be demolished to create something modern there," said County Councilman Robert Weiner, who sponsored the rezoning of the property to include an historic overlay.

In a somewhat related matter, Weiner tabled an ordinance he sponsored to provide

The Weldin House

provide the same zoning designation for the 25-acre Jester Farm off Grubb Road near Naamans Road. Weiner said he is negotiating with the county Department of Community Services in an effort to get it to withdraw its objection to an historic overlay and to redesignate the property, which is county parkland, on  its master plan as intended for passive recreation instead of active recreation.

The department has taken the position that an historic overlay would hamper efforts to develop the property, which it has said will only be done after determining the desires of residents of the community.

Wade Catts, a member of the county Historic Review Board testified before the proposal was tabled to the effect that country government has empowered the board to foster historic preservation, but has objected to that being done with regard to a parcel of county-owned property. The board initiated the proposal for an historic overlay because that "is the only tool we have to preserve historic property," he said.

News that DelDOT has reached an agreement to purchase the Weldin house property came in something of the fashion of an 11th-hour rescue, although it appeared that the overlay proposal had the necessary votes to be approved anyway. The county Department of Land Use had recommended the rezoning and the Planning Board had concurred, provided DelDOT did not object to doing so.

Weiner was prepared to introduce a substitute ordinance limiting the overlay to just the house and its immediate area. But the letter from Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward said there was no objection to its being applied to the entire parcel.

An historic overlay does not change the underlying zoning classification of a property. In her testimony, Reed said that it would be less restrictive to development than deed limitations in some suburban developments.

State Representative David Ennis, who delivered the DelDOT letter, said that Hayward's position on the matter demonstrated "sensitivity on the part of the transportation department not previously seen." James Hanby, who formerly was a member of the Historic Review Board, credited Hayward for having "stepped forward at a critical time."

Friends of Penny Hill mobilized after the Seven-Eleven convenience store chain filed with the county a plan to locate an outlet, coupled with a gasoline station, on the property, which it had agreed to buy from the present owner, Carol Harrington. In its technical review of the plan DelDOT found that Lore Avenue is not wide enough to service the proposed use and Hayward said the department would not approve widening the otherwise local-service street.

DelDOT spokesman Michael Williams said the department has agreed to purchase the property for $700,000 with final settlement to occur in 30 to 45 days.

"Once settled, we plan on working with the local legislators and community groups to develop a plan for the ultimate disposition of the property, subject to a deed restriction requiring that the house remain on site as part of any development plan," Hayward said in his letter.

Reed said her organization would agree to the house being refitted to become a bed and breakfast inn, a real estate or other commercial office, or to serve a similar function.

Hayward said DelDOT intends to demolish the long abandoned building at the corner of the intersection and make safety improvements at the intersection. Lore Avenue angles into Marsh Road, creating a three-way intersection. The building there was the original site of a popular doughnut shop, which the Carol and the late John Harrington managed for 45 years and, in more recent years, it has been a sandwich shop.

2003. All rights reserved.

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