August 17, 2004

The county Planning Board and Department of Land Use will jointly recommend that County Council grant 'hometown' zoning status to parts of Claymont and Hockessin. If, as now expected, that happens when Council next considers zoning matters in October, they will be the first unincorporated communities to have some direct control over future development and redevelopment.

The board, by separate 6-to-1 votes, agreed with the department which said in its draft recommendations that approval of pending ordinances to establish special zoning overlays will preserve the historic and traditional characteristics of the communities and promote their revitalization.

"The overlay, [community development] plan and [design guidelines] manual can spark investment and economic development. New buildings will crate new jobs, new shopping and dining opportunities, and new spending opportunities," according to the recommendation referring to Claymont.

The Hockessin plan "builds on the New Castle County Comprehensive Plan and provides a more detailed set of goals, objectives and strategies to meet specific needs of this defined area within the

county. ... [It] encourages the concentration of development within an already developed core and utilizes existing infrastructure to accomplish its objectives," that recommendation said.

James Smith, assistant general manager of the land use department, told a meeting of the board on Aug. 17 that 'hometown' zoning is intended to promote "holistic development" aimed at achieving overall objectives rather than taking a parcel-by-parcel approach. Prospective developers "will not have to worry about what might happen with an adjoining property" and will avoid having to seek "costly individual [zoning] variances, which can [render] potential projects cost-prohibitive," he said.

Following the votes, Brett Saddler, president of the Claymont Business Owners Association, told Delaforum that it was "a very good day for Claymont." But, he added, "now the job of marketing Claymont to investors begins." George Lossť, co-chairman of the Claymont Renaissance steering committee, said that approval of the overlay will "give people in Claymont the opportunity to get involved" in shaping the future of the community. No civic leader nor resident of Hockessin attended the board's meeting.

The department's recommendations are conditioned on the respective community plans being modified to make it clear that owners will not have to bring existing properties into conformance with the plans. Design guidelines and other provisions "will only be for properties with active land use applications before the Department of Land Use," the clarification will be required to say.

The proposed 'hometown' overlay districts will be centered on Philadelphia Pike in Claymont (above) and Old Lancaster Pike in Hockessin. The Claymont area contains 396 acres and Hockessin 153 acres. The initial notations refer to existing zoning, which will not be changed by the overlays. [Diagrams are appendix in the respective ordinances.]

The recommendation referring to Claymont, however, refers to the overlay having "a positive influence on all properties located within the proposed [overlay] boundary [by providing] incentive to redevelop under-performing areas."

The plans also will have to specifically acknowledge that the department -- and in the case of major development proposals County Council -- still have final authority to approve or reject proposals. Community Design Review Advisory Committees to be established in accord with the 'hometown' zoning ordinance enacted in April will, as the name implies, review proposals and advise the department.

Smith told Delaforum that the intention is to have the review committees in place by the time Council approves the overlays. Committee members will be appointed by County Executive Tom Gordon and confirmed by County Council. Selection of candidates to serve on the committees will follow the practice used to fill slots on other citizen volunteer panels with recommendations coming through County Council representatives and civic organizations, he said.

The lone dissenter from both of the board's votes was June MacArtor who argued that "hometown' zoning is unnecessary. "We have the U.D.C. (Unified Development Code); we have county government; we have elections. A community can incorporate if they (residents) wish to have more local control than they [already] have," she said. "It sounds like people who don't like the U.D.C. went out and created this alternative."

Although he called 'hometown' zoning "clearly a salute to a traditional neighborhood," board chairman Victor Singer characterized the process as "an experiment to see if it will make it (revitalization of older communities) happen.

Mark Weinberg, one of the eight members of the board, did not attend the meeting.

Josh Mastrangelo, the land use department's liaison with the Claymont Renaissance steering committee, said that a 'hometown' zoning overlay will make redeveloping existing properties "less stringent" than meeting the requirements, directly or through zoning variances, of the development code. With regard to new development, he said, "it will be no more or no less stringent."

He and Smith pointed out that underlying zoning is not changed by an overlay. It simply modifies some of the usual requirements relating to such things as density, building setbacks, parking requirements, buffer zones and the like.

The Claymont plan actually makes use of a zoning category which has existed since the present comprehensive code was enacted at the end of 1997 but which has not yet been applied to any property. The 'neighborhood transition' area in that plan, like the zoning category of the same name, provides for a mix of commercial and residential uses.

As Delaforum previously reported, the Hockessin plan was crafted to meet the divergent requirements of an automobile-oriented Lancaster Pike and what is intended to become primarily a pedestrian area along Old Lancaster Pike. Although close to each other, neither is expected to have much influence on the other's basic character.

Although the intent is to have motorists using Lancaster Pike "not just see a sea of parking lots," planner Mary Grace Fariello said, "We don't anticipate it will ever [have] a charming walkable environment."

Nevertheless, she added, the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association is establishing a committee "to identify existing signage [and] promote voluntary cooperation" in eliminating some that is considered undesirable. One property owner, she said, has already agreed to take down a billboard when its current lease expires.

Mastrangelo cited as a possible "major redevelopment opportunity" in the Claymont overlay zone the Children's House property fronting on Green Street. He said that the area as a whole offers economic development incentives as the result of its location between Interstate highways and having a commuter railroad station on the Wilmington-to-Philadelphia line.

While the date is admittedly arbitrary, he said 2013 has been proposed as an attainable target for accomplishing the anticipated rejuvenation.

The department's recommendations credit a meeting in 2000 involving Gordon, County Councilman Robert Weiner, land use officials and "various stakeholders from the Claymont community" with starting the process which led to enactment of the 'hometown' zoning ordinance and the first two overlay applications. From that, the documents say, came, in 2002, a community planning program within the department and, soon afterwards, a community grants program to help finance the planning.

In all, the recommendation referring to Claymont said, arriving at an approach to providing for revitalization while preserving traditional characteristics is "based upon [an] extensive community planning effort of the past four years."

Be that as it may, Fariello pointed out that the concept is not entirely new. The county's 'unique' communities and the need to preserve their characteristics were referred to in the 1997 edition of the county's Comprehensive Plan.

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Read previous Delaforum article: 'Overlay' plan envisions  a revitalized Claymont
Read previous Delaforum article: Design guidelines will govern 'hometown' development

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