May 13, 2004

President of the company developing the Paladin Club condominium community categorically denied that part of a wall, which some residents claim is historic, was torn down to avoid having it protected. At least some members of the Historic Review Board took that assertion skeptically.

"It's not true," Mike Walsh crisply replied when board member John Brook asked point blank if there was any connection between the facts that Roy Jackson, a Paladin resident, had asked the board at a previous meeting to consider an historical zoning overlay for the structure and that  "you got your bulldozer out and the wall came down" two days later.

"You're telling us, then, that it was all just a coincidence," Brook shot back. Walsh did not comment further on that point.

Earlier in a hearing on May 12, Edward Heite, identified as a consultant on historical and archaeological matters, testified on behalf of Edgewood Village L.l.c., that the stone wall is not, in itself, historic. At most, he said, it "is a very small element in a property that would be historic if it were still there."

Jackson later in the hearing disputed that. "The wall was an integral part of a 100-year-old esthetic landscape -- a masterpiece of stone masons' work," he testified.

The review board reserved decision on what to do about the issue. The question officially before it is whether to seek an historic zoning overlay over the rest of the wall and, possibly, nearby structures dating back to when the site was part of iron company executive William Sellers' estate. About half of the wall was left standing after a county inspector issued a stop-work order pertaining to the demolition.

Heite presented several photographs which depicted the wall in various configurations over a period of time going back to the late 1800s. They showed, he said, that "this wall has been through many hands -- some skilled, some not so skilled -- over the years."

It's significance in the context of the Sellers Family estate, he said, was as a functioning retaining wall along a driveway at the rear of the estate connecting it with a working farm.

Lawyer Wendy Danner said there was nothing illegal in removing the structure, but added that the company "has agreed to save the rest of the wall."

Although acknowledging that only a former carriage house, which has been converted into a clubhouse for the condominium community, and a vacant stone house which evidently was occupied by employees of the estate, are all that remain, Jackson characterized the Sellers estate as a landmark reminder of Delaware's social and industrial history. He spoke of a "web of connections" involving such disparate elements as author F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Brooklyn Bridge and Wilmington's official timekeeper.

The issue is related to a development plan now pending in the Department of Land Use involving the proposed building of 35 townhouses an the empty hillside behind the wall.

In what was essentially his first public comments on the dispute over partial destruction of the wall, Walsh testified that their construction has "always been part of what we intended [to do]" after Edgewood Village acquired the property 1993 in proceedings related to the bankruptcy of the former developer, Tall Trees Associates. Tall Trees had acquired what formerly was Clifton Park Manor, an apartment community built in the early 1950s, with a view toward renovating the 92 apartment buildings, which had fallen into disrepair, for the upscale condominium market. Edgewood Village is still doing that.

Discussion at the hearing touched on whether taking down part of the wall violated land use regulations because doing so is an element of a development plan which has not yet received approval.

Billie Travalini disputed Walsh's claim that future 'in-fill' development of the property was a long-standing and known part of Edgewood Village's intentions. She testified that she was not told that when she bought her condominium in 2000. In fact, she said, she was specifically told by a sales representative that the wall was part of the historic ambiance she would enjoy while living there and was assured that the developer intended to preserve the 'historic integrity' of the community. "Those of us who grew up on Delaware take such things -- small things, maybe -- seriously," she said.

Walsh said later that he never told a prospective buyer, nor anyone else, anything of that sort.

John Cartiere, of the Fox Point Association, an areawide civic organization in the Bellefonte-Edgemoor area, said the community is pleased with and supportive of the contribution Pettinaro interests have made toward the revitalization of the area. But, he added, the development firm "forced this kind of confrontation [by] preemptively destroying the wall." Edgewood Village is an affiliate of Pettinaro Construction.

Dotty Keller, whose father was a caretaker and chauffeur for the Sellers and who was born there and lived on the estate as a child, drew applause from the 24 Paladin residents who attended the hearing when she said the best solution to the controversy is "put back the wall." No one on the board speculated on whether the panel or the land use department have the authority to order that to be done.

© 2004. All rights reserved.

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