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November, 2005

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Astra Zeneca and some of the people who work for the pharmaceuticals company at Fairfax have received better-than-passing grades in commuting.

According to a report of the second annual  traffic mitigation audit obtained by Delaforum from Delaware Department of Transportation in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, 30% of the nearly 4,000 employees who come, on average, to the campus daily arrived before 7:15 or after 8:45 a.m. The audit did not get into how many left during the afternoon rush, but that is presumed to be in the same range. As part of the deal by which the company was given a waiver from meeting traffic-generation standards when the county approved its expansion plan in 2000, Astra Zeneca agreed to reduce peak-hour commuting by 15%.

The audit found that the main volume-reducing factor was flexible working hours, which took 914 employees out of the morning rush. Around 500 worked an extra hour on other days to get a half-day off on Fridays and about 100 worked at home between one and four days a week. Also, 81 used a company-sponsored shuttle from the Wilmington train station; 58 came by public transit; and 38 car- or van-pooled. There were no bicycle riders or walkers. The figures are daily averages reported by the company or outside sources. The audit was taken in January and February, but an unsigned draft of the report was just recently completed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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BOATERS GET A REPRIEVE: With a vote that literally reflected public sentiment, County Council directed the Department of Land Use to stop enforcing controversial provisions of the property code restricting  parking of boats and recreational vehicles in residential areas. The vote was 11 to one. William Tansey cast the negative vote and Timothy Sheldon was absent from the meeting. Prior to that, 11 persons testified in support of the measure, one -- Jonathan Husband of the Fox Point Association -- opposed it and a woman complained she was being harassed for having reported a violator.

Council president Paul Clark said the move will give Council time to "revisit the issue" and decide what, if any, code changes are desirable. "We knew there were some inequities in it" when Council enacted a package of many provisions intended to update the code, he said. Tansey argued, however, that "it did not sneak up on Council; [the updating] was considered for more than a year." Clark said an unidentified person who filed many complaints to generate inspections and citations for code violations did not force Council's hand, but "that gentlemen just rushed things a bit." He said there is no timetable for Council to deal further with the matter. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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FEDERAL INVESTIGATION SOUGHT: County Councilman Jea Street has asked the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to investigate what he alleged are racially discriminatory practices in the Christina School District. "It appears that the school district has taken its declaration of unitary status as a license to resegregate schools and at the same time throw all the fundamental rights of parents and students out of the window," he wrote in letters to education secretary Margaret Spellings and Jeremiah Glassman, chief of Justice's civil rights office.

Street made nine complaints regarding suspensions or placements into alternative education programs which he alleged targeted 'minority' students. Of 8,014 suspensions, he said, 73% involved 'minority' students as did 85% of alternative placements. "The district has also developed a zero tolerance for parent involvement and any meaningful way for parents to express concerns and grievances," he wrote. He also charged discrimination in hiring and promotion practices involving African-Americans in administrative positions. Christina officials had not responded to a Delaforum request for comment as this article was being prepared.

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BALL FIELD LEASES: Brandywine School District reportedly is nearing a compromise on terms of leases of the Old Mill Lane and Chanin sites to New Castle County government. The district has wanted the agreements to run for 10 years while the Concord Soccer League and Talleyville Girls Softball League, to which the county will sublease the properties, want them to extend 20 years. Sources told Delaforum that the parties are likely to settle on 17 years. The length of advance notice to terminate the leases  also is at issue. The school board on Nov. 21 postponed for the second time ratification of the lease agreements without explaining the delay.

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There is nothing like recalling that gasoline was selling at more than $3 a gallon around Labor Day to make you forget that just under $2 used to be considered outlandish.

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Maple Lane Elementary will be converted to a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school if the Brandywine school board gives expected approval to a plan to stem declining enrollment there.

The move would be the district's first break from the four-tier grade plan imposed by federal court in its 1978 desegregation ruling. Citing strong community support, the district in 2002 convinced the state Board of Education that retaining that alignment satisfies requirements of the Neighborhood Schools Act, which calls for extending elementary schools from third grade to fifth or sixth grade. Maple Lane principal Julianne Pecorella told the district board on Nov. 21 that her faculty favors the change in grade configuration and "most of our parents are delighted."

Maple Lane enrollment is down to 260, the board was told, because it no longer houses a self-contained special education component "along with the changes in the Brookview [Apartments] development." Pecorella denied that beginning the academic year a month earlier than other district schools under a 'balanced calendar' arrangement had anything to do with it. She said she did not know how many children were moved using the public school choice law, but thought  that loss was offset by 45 who were 'choiced' into Maple Lane. Her plan is to require enrollees in the higher grades to 'choice', mostly from Claymont Intermediate. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Superintendent Bruce Harter said he will recommend implementing the plan by adding one grade in each of the next three academic years.

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WAIVERS GRANTED: The Brandywine school board granted the district a waiver from the state law requirement that primary classes not exceed 22 children. Although 122 of the district's 146 classes came in under that cap, financial officer David Blowman told the board on Nov. 21 that the district is "not anywhere near the point where we would not need the waiver." Most public school districts in the state are in similar straits, he said, because of how the number of state-supported teaching positions is determined. The board also waived the requirement that 98% of teacher positions be assigned to schools which generate the authorizations.

Fourteen of the 24 classes requiring waivers are third grades. Seven of the district's eight elementary schools have oversize classes -- Maple Lane is the exception. Carrcroft has the most, six, and Brandywood the second-most with five. An oversize kindergarten at Brandywood and a first grade at Maple Lane are considered to meet the requirement because they have a teacher's aide assigned to them. Blowman told the board that average class size in the district is 19.7 students, down slightly from last academic year and continuing the downward trend of recent years.

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There apparently is not much the General Assembly can do about it, but Representative Robert Valihura wants the public to be aware that a big hike in electricity cost is just around the corner.

A meeting of a special energy committee he co-chairs was told on Nov. 21  that the increase in Delmarva Power electricity rates to be effective in May, 2006, will be somewhere between 27% and 39%. "It's worse than I anticipated," Valihura said. Bruce Burcat, executive director of the Public Service Commission, testified that he is "very worried about a growing problem" of service cutoffs. "A lot larger group of people ... are going to have trouble paying their bills," he said. He urged the Assembly to complete action on legislation to increase the tax which finances state assistance to low-income clients of state service centers to meet their utility costs.

Higher rates will come with the final step in deregulation of electricity utilities enacted in 1999 to foster competition in the industry. Gary Cohen, manager of regulatory affairs, told the committee that 15 companies which sell electricity wholesale are expected to bid on a three-year contract to supply Delmarva. It now buys from Conectiv Power Delivery, which, like Delmarva, is a subsidiary of Pepco Holdings. He told Delaforum that he did not know if Conectiv is one of the bidders. Cohen said there is a misconception that higher rates are driving an upward spiral of energy costs. "Bills have gone up because they are using more," he said.

After having two men who identified themselves as consumer advocates ejected from the meeting for staging a silent demonstration, Valihura said the committee will hold more meetings and "the public will be heard in this process."

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The ordinance to enlarge Claymont's 'hometown' zoning district to include Brookview will go before the Planning Council without the potentially controversial idea of swapping parkland included.

Before the community design review committee voted unanimously on Nov. 17 to recommend approval of the measure sponsored by Councilman John Cartier, Jennifer Leister, land use department liaison with the committee, told the panel that, although exchanging open space in the redeveloped community for a portion of Woodshaven-Kruse park in order to build a condominium there is included in the design guidelines it was approving, that issue will "have to be dealt with" at some undetermined future time. The committee then voted separately to approve the guidelines and to bring the present 64.85-acre Brookview property into the district.

Key features of the guidelines include designating 10% of the tentatively planned 1,200 residential units to be 'affordable housing'; providing a variety of housing types but no single-family detached units; and keeping 9.9 acres as open space, using part of that for stormwater management. They also specify that an equal amount of 'affordable' units be provided off-site. The area in which that would occur was not defined nor was it specified how it would be done. The guidelines also call for using a variety of building material and varying the heights of the structures up to four stories. No more than six units would be allowed in any string of townhouses. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

"In 30 years ... I have never seen this amount of [community] participation" in determining details of a development, said Robert Ruggio, senior vice president of Commonwealth Group, indicating that he views that favorably.

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IMPROVEMENT PROMISED: "We're already doing a lot [and] we intend to do more," Dana Lasage, Citi Steel's environmental manager, told the Claymont Community Coalition in response to several complaints from area residents about dust allegedly emanating from its plant. The Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control earlier charged the company with two violations of state air pollution laws in connection with recent releases of the material. Lasage told the coalition on Nov. 17 that the company is working to control dust in the area of the plant where it holds slag produced during its steel-making process.

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PLAN SUBMITTED: Wawa has filed a plan with the county Department of Land Use seeking permission to provide additional landscaping in lieu of having to remove bricks from the façade of its Claymont outlet, according to liaison Jennifer Leister. The brickwork has been the subject of controversy since it was discovered that it did not comply with the site development plan. The design review committee is expected to consider the new proposal in December. George Lossé, a member of the committee, indicated it likely will be opposed. "They said they could remove the bricks and that they would," he said at the committee's meeting on Nov. 17. (CLICK HERE to access previous Delaforum article.)

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MORE LIGHTS: Motorists driving through the Blue Ball area eventually will encounter seven traffic signals where before there were two. That left some attenders at a state transportation department 'workshop' on Nov. 17 wondering if they will cause more rush-hour traffic backups than they cure. First clue will come when the ramp from Foulk Road onto southbound Concord Pike opens in December. There will be a signal at the top of the incline. Barries  intended to channel traffic will be of a type designed to permit emergency vehicles to cross. Vans and pickup trucks with aggressive drivers presumably will be able to do likewise.

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UTILITY COMING: New Castle County is "very serious" about establishing a stormwater utility, according to Councilman John Cartier. Although state enabling legislation was killed by Kent and Sussex County opposition, a committee has been formed to look into how New Castle might proceed on its own. Having recently visited Charlotte, N.C., where a utility said to be a model for other areas is operating, Cartier said setting up one  here would provide money for flood control, retention pond maintenance and similar purposes. Stormwater utilities are financed  by fees based on the amount of impervious surface residential and commercial properties have. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

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HUSH HUSH: Astra Zeneca refused to make public the results of annual audits showing progress, if any, toward meeting its commitment to reduce the number of employees at its Fairfax complex commuting  in single-occupant vehicles by 15%. "We're not interested in providing that [information]," said Abby Baron, the company's manager of media relations, explaining in response to a Delaforum request to review the relative documents that the company regards it as "proprietary information." Reports of the audits are filed with New Castle County Department of Land Use and Delaware Department of Transportation.

In May, 2000, Astra Zenca voluntarily agreed to audits to verify results of  its traffic reduction efforts in order to obtain from County Council a waiver from having to comply with  traffic mitigation requirements so that its plan to expand its headquarters and research complex could be approved. First stage of the expansion has been completed. A subsequent ordinance provided for penalties for failure to fulfill such traffic-mitigation agreements, but it is unclear whether Astra Zeneca agreed to accept that provision. Roger Roy, director of the Transportation Management Association of Delaware, said the audit report for 2005 is nearly completed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum articles.)

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Military officers and civilians at the Pentagon are divided on their assessment of what is happening in Iraq, but generally are supportive of U.S. war policy, according to a veteran journalist.

"It's a mixed bag," Jamie McIntyre, of C.N.N. News, told a University of Delaware audience on Nov. 14 that, while opinions vary and some people will be candid about that in private conversations "no one is going to say anything [publicly] that will give aid and comfort to the enemy." Vincent Brooks, an Army brigadier general who heads its public affairs office, did not dispute that, but said the primary motivation is "sensitivity to those things that [might] endanger lives" in the combat zone. For that reason, he added, there necessarily has to be bounds on the amount of information made available to the public.

Both speakers cautioned against trying to strike a balance in media coverage of the war on any sort of 'equal-time' basis. Brooks said, however, that it is incumbent to present information in context. While there remain areas of the country which have not been secured, there are considerably more areas where schools and hospitals have been provided. "It's hard to get the good-news stories out," he said. McIntyre agreed that there are 'positive' things happening that don't reach the public. But, he said, "it's hard to [focus] on schools and soccer fields ... when U.S. soldiers and marines are dying every day."

McIntyre predicted that, eventually, "Iraq will be a better place, but that will come at a terrible price in lives, money and U.S. prestige around the world."

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PROGRESS REPORTS:

Construction workers (above) put structural steel in place as the frame of the new Woodlawn branch library in west Wilmington takes shape. The county facility, which will replace the Wilmington Institute library which has been operating since the 1920s, is scheduled to be completed by September, 2006. Meanwhile, the Concord Pike-Faulk Road interchange at Blue Ball in Brandywine Hundred (below) is further along, with completion, except for a link with Powder Mill Road, expected in early December. Also to be finished then is the renovated Blue Ball barn, but that won't be open to the public until spring. CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.

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Audrey Doberstein, of Wilmington College, is in some fast company. She is the second-highest paid of five college presidents making seven-digit salaries. Her current take: $1.37 million, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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OUT OF BOUNDS: County Council's personnel committee violated the state Freedom of Information Actwhen it discussed matters beyond those that the law shields during a recent closed-door session, Council attorney Wendy Danner ruled. Responding to a complaint from Delaforum, which along with other members of the public was excluded from attending the session, she said she has instructed that the portion of executive session minutes referring to the items illicitly talked about be included as part of the minutes of the open portion of the meeting and made available to the public.

Danner said several Council members "spoke specifically about their [legislative] aides, their competency and abilities" during the session and that was proper. However, she said, discussion about such things as parking arrangements, paid time off for volunteer work, "networking opportunities", and salaries and duties in a general sense was improper. The meeting agenda contained a generic reference to "job description for legislative aides." When that point was reached during the open meeting, committee chairman Timothy Sheldon moved to exclude the public and other members agreed unanimously without discussion to do so.

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JERSEY BOUND:

These large 'blue rocks' dug out the path of the new road being built  as part of the Blue Ball project to connect Powder Mill Road with Concord Pike are destined for a useful purpose. They have been sold to the Army Corps of Engineers to be used in a new jetty at Townsend Inlet in Avalon, N.J., according to Ralph Farabaugh, project manager for R.E.Pierson, the contractor building the road. 'Blue rock' is a localism for the blue-gray stone indigenous to northern Delaware, which also is known as 'Brandywine granite'.

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WATCHDOG: County Council would significantly increase the level of oversight over administration spending if it enacts a proposed ordinance sponsored by Karen Venezky, chair of the finance committee. The measure would require Council approval of all contracts valued at $50,000 or more before the money is spent. Present law, enacted in 2004 after former County Executive Tom Gordon was indicted on federal corruption charges, requires scrutiny only of contracts and related purchase orders which were not competitively bid. The proposed ordinance, introduced on Nov. 8, would lower the threshold on those from $50,000 to $10,000.

Venezky told Delaforum that her proposal was inspired by the Coons administration's having spent nearly a half million dollars on a consultant's study of the planned expansion of the county's sanitary sewer network south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. She said the study found little information beyond what "we already knew." The proposed ordinance, which has several co-sponsors, reflects the expanded Council's "desire to be a pro-active Council" and her own belief in "checks and balance" between branches of government, she said. County Executive Christopher Coons did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment.

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HISTORIC HOUSES TO BE SAVED: Council approved paying Phillips Construction Co. $88,802 to stabilize three rowhouses on Hickman Road in Claymont said to be a danger to adjoining houses. Following usual policy, the Department of Land Use will seek reimbursement from the owners, James Edwards, code enforcement manager, told Council's finance committee on Nov. 8. That could prove difficult, however, because the owner of one property is deceased with no apparent heirs and the owner of the other two, who lives in upstate New York, has been refusing to accept certified mail related to the issue, Edwards said.

Councilman John Cartier, who represents the area, said there is an application pending to place Hickman Road on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built around 1912 by the former Worth Steel to provide housing for its black workers. Worthland, which now is known as Knollwood, was built for white workers. Edwards said that the work will not involve restoration and do little more than prevent the structures from collapsing. Liens can be placed on the properties to force them to a sheriff's sale, he said. Given the fact the community is a row of adjoining houses, it would cost more to demolish the three properties, he said.

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RENTAL CODE PANEL: Council on Nov. 8 confirmed the appointments of the seven members of the committee to monitor the county's new rental code. They are: Michael Morton, a lawyer representing landlords; Deborah Gottschalk, Community Legal Aid Society, representing tenants; Matthew Heckles, Delaware State Housing Authority; Robert Weir, New Castle County Association of Realtors; William Dunn and George Lossé, representing civic organizations; and Steven Peuquet, community representative. General manager Charles Baker said the land use department has begun registering residential rental properties as the law requires. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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A consultant recommended unequivocally that Brandywine School District not even think about turning all or part of its school bus operations over to one or more private contractors.

It is not worth jeopardizing "a safe, reliable, efficient" system for, at most, a 6% cost savings, Tim Ammon, of North Wales, Pa.-based Management Partnership Services, told the school board on Nov. 7. When extra bus runs for field trips and sports activities are added to the cost of getting children to and from schools, most, if not all, of those savings would disappear, he said. The board did not take any formal action at the 'workshop' meeting, but the consensus of the five members present was clearly to accept the recommendation. Ron Love, the Delaware Department of Education's top transportation official, agreed.

Ammon was equally emphatic in saying that Brandywine should replace its bus yard in northeast Wilmington, which he described as one of the most "abysmal" he has ever seen. Drivers and maintenance staff should be lauded for working at or from such a place, he said.  Superintendent Bruce Harter told the board that he would immediately "proceed to identify suitable locations for a depot." Speaking as a parent as well as a school board member, Mark Huxsoll said he was "very impressed" by the extent to which Brandywine drivers go on behalf of their charges. Privatization would lose that "personal element," Joseph Brumskill said.

Voters at the bond referendum last spring approved relocating the bus yard, at a cost to the district of $6 million, by the time the present lease expires in 2010.

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PUT POLITICS ASIDE:  The taskforce set up by Governor Ruth Ann Minner to recommend what should be done about disposing of solid waste was admonished not to let politics or the interests of their employers or affiliations get in the way of a technical evaluation of alternatives. Project director Toby Clark promised a "public-friendly" process at the panel's initial meeting on Nov. 7. Minner's policy director Lee Ann Walling said "nothing is off the table" when it comes to options to be considered. With as little as five years to solve the problem, she urged the group to come up with workable ideas and not "stick our heads in the sludge."

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County Executive Christopher Coons said he considered vetoing what he called a "poorly crafted" ordinance eliminating so-called '3.319' hearings, but did not feel he had sufficient reason to do so.

There is a difference between rejecting legislation that would be "bad public policy" and one "that could be improved," he told a meeting of officers of areawide civic organizations, several of whom had pressed for a veto. He added that he agreed that public participation and County Council involvement in approving major development plans "is an issue that is right for the comprehensive plan process." Pressed on how he would have voted on the '3.319' measure if he were still on Council, he replied, "I would have urged that it would not come to a vote in this form. ... You could have gotten a better trade-off."

The ordinance substitutes a preliminary-stage Planning Board hearing for all major plans in place of the former requirement that only 'open space' plans be so treated and then only after they were well into the approval process. Critics argue that gives developers an opening to significantly modify plans without additional public 'input' and removes Council's final say. "In the end, they will build what they say they were going to build," said Daniel Bockover, of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. "Bait-and-switch is alive and well in New Castle County," Fritz Griesinger, of the Churchmans Road Coalition, said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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BRICKS AND BOATS: Civic leaders attending the monthly meeting with the executive on Nov. 4 urged Coons to support an effort to thwart a proposed ordinance to suspend enforcement of or to repeal a portion of the property maintenance code imposing restrictions on storage of boats and recreational vehicles on residential properties. Reacting to word that County Council president Paul Clark intends to introduce such legislation, they said the code as it now stands contributes to the esthetic appearance of neighborhoods. Critics argue that it is physically impossible for folks living on small to medium-size lots to comply with its screening provisions. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article)

Claiming that Wawa Corp. is avoiding bringing the issue of the brick façade on its new Claymont outlet before the community design review committee, George Lossé, of the Claymont Coalition, called for county government to require compliance with a provision of the approved development plan providing that the brickwork be all red and not two-color. Unless and until the issue is resolved, "they're in violation" of the Unified Development Code, according to land use manager Charles Baker. Coons agreed with Lossé that the matter is important because of its precedent-setting aspects. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article)

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TO COME UP TO STRENGTH: Eight of the 22 vacancies on the county police force will be filled when officers who have been hired from other forces complete an abbreviated training course and a dozen or so rookies will be added from a police academy class scheduled to start in January, according to acting police chief Scott McLaren. He said also that he expects officers on leave while serving on active duty with the Delaware National Guard to be back around the end of November. At present, the force is down 42 officers from its authorized strength of 357, he said.

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County Council will repeal provisions in the recently enacted property maintenance code limiting storage of boats and recreational vehicles in residential areas or suspend their enforcement.

Council president Paul Clark told a meeting of Council's land use committee on Nov. 1 that he intends to introduce an ordinance "temporarily staying enforcement" of that part of the law "until we can see if we can come up with something that's fair." If such an ordinance were enacted, it would be a highly unusual move by a legislative body. "Why not just repeal [the provisions] and be done with it?" Councilman Jea Street said. George Smiley said that "it should come as no surprise to anyone" that the restrictions are unfair to boat and recreational vehicle owners who live on properties of modest dimensions.

Since those provisions were put into the code, reportedly at the behest of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, there have been 179 complaints about boats allegedly stored illegally and 59 about recreational vehicles. "One person is driving from neighborhood to neighborhood and calling in complaints," Clark said. It is county policy that code enforcement officers respond to all complaint received by the Department of Land Use and cite the violator if a complaint is found to be valid. Provisions of the code in question set rather expansive standards for locating, buffering and shielding on lots smaller than two acres. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

A draft of Clark's possible ordinance does not address what will be done about people who have taken necessary steps to remedy violations by such things as paying for off-site storage or buffering. Twenty cases in each category of violation have been resolved.

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WRAPPED UP: Council on Nov. 8 is expected to give final approval to the last development plan which went through the '3.319 hearing' process eliminated at its last session. The plan does not include, however, any 'affordable housing', encouragement of which was given as a major reason for eliminating special treatment for so-called open-space developments. Houses in Crossland, just south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, will likely sell for between $350,000 and $400,000 Council's land use committee was told on Nov. 1. "Today we get back into the real world," Councilman Penrose Hollins remarked. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

Last updated on November 25, 2005

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