July 16, 2004

So-called traditional towns may have just grown like the literary Topsy, but future development of some of those in New Castle County will be regulated in detail in the hopes that they can stay looking pretty much as they do now.

That is not so much a contradiction as it is a case of having to apply present-day techniques to avoid the consequences of reverting to a laissez-faire approach, which, depending on which architecture or purpose is being evaluated, may or may not have worked in the past. 

Josh Mastrangelo, the Department of Land Use's liaison with the Claymont Renaissance steering committee, told a committee meeting on July 15 that, with the approval of a 'hometown' zoning overlay, contents of a detailed design manual will be the basis on which a design review committee will evaluate future development and redevelopment plans.

The manual, he said, will be incorporated by reference in an enabling ordinance into the Uniform Development Code and will be enforced the same way as other provisions in that law. A developer who

does not comply with an agreement worked out with the committee, for instance, would not be granted a certificate of occupancy.

That is not to say that the process is intended to be confrontational, said Tom Comitta, the community planner hired by the renaissance to develop both the plan and the manual.

He cited Charleston, S.C., where results of a traditionalist approach to development have made the city a national attraction. "They've done it with generalized enabling legislation and through 'friendly persuasion'," he said. "Since 1976, not one building has been torn down."

Albeit on a much smaller scale, Claymont and Hockessin are expected to obtain 'hometown' status for portions of their community when County Council acts on the recently introduced ordinance at its next thrice-a-year rezoning session in October. Before that, the ordinances will be subjects of a Planning Board hearing and recommendation.

Comitta said that, in Claymont's case, the area selected for inclusion in the 'hometown' overlay was along Philadelphia Pike between Perkins Run and the Interstate 495 interchange. In addition to properties fronting on the highway, the area was extended perpendicularly to include older neighborhoods with what are considered distinctive appearances.

He said that the heart of the area is 'Claymont center', which is actually at the north end of the overlay, which meets the accepted community planning definition of a 'main street' as extending a 'walkable distance' of from between three to seven blocks.

The proposed 'hometown' districts will be centered on Philadelphia Pike in Claymont (above) and Old Lancaster Pike in Hockessin. [Diagrams are appendix in the respective ordinances.]

Mastrangelo said his department is putting the finishing touches on the plan and design manual and expects to have them competed by July 23 in time for members of the Planning Board and community residents to have an opportunity to review them before the hearing, which is secheduled for Aug. 2.

Comitta said the manual will include precise guides concerning such details as acceptable building material and appearance.

Getting into such detail is necessary, according to George Lossť, chairman of the steering committee. "If we expect people to build like we want, we have to tell them what we want," he said.

Mastrangelo said it will be necessary to line up five to nine candidates to serve as the design review committee in time for them to be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by Council before the new zoning goes into effect.

Except for an architect and possible a landscape architect, members of the committee must be residents of the community, he said. That does not mean they must live in or have a business located in the irregular boundaries of the overlay, but do so in the area generally regarded as the community. In Claymont's case, he said, that is the 19703 postal zip code area; in Hockessin it is the boundary established as its jurisdiction by the Greater Hockessin Economic Development Association.

The committee, he said, will consider only plans submitted after the overlay goes into effect. It cannot require retrofitting of existing buildings or properties. Comitta said that at least one potential development -- involving the Goodwill Industries store at Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road -- has come forward to agree to comply with the new standards.

It is also possible that a developer could go around the committee to seek variances from provisions of the manual through the Board of Adjustment. But Mastrangelo said it is unlikely that board would approve a variance over the serious objection by the review committee.

Brett Saddler, president of the Claymont Business Owners Association, said that the new economic development organization expects to be up and running before the overlay goes into effect. Its mission will be to attract investment and business development in the community, he said.

While completely unofficial a preference exercise conducted at the steering committee's June meeting may have provided an insight into what community activists want. Comitta said the unanimous choices as 'most favored' by the 23 participants were a bakery and an ice cream parlor. At the bottom of the list were a Wal-Mart store and a tattoo parlor.

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