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April 4,  2006

 The granddaddy of area civic council is about to celebrate an anniversary, but no one is sure just what anniversary. It generally is accepted that the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred was born during the suburban boom of the early 1950s, but a search of papers, documents, newspaper clippings and other mementos has turned up items dating as far back as 1938.

"We know it was around in '54, but there was land use activity in 1949 and '50," said Frances West, a former president of the council, who shares with Bernard Dempsey the distinction of being the longest-serving executive-committee members still active.

If there is confusion over dating the council, West said there is no question what brought it into being -- issues over zoning and the intense controversy over alignment of the expressway that is now Interstate 95. "What we were after was planned development. ... We had all come from someplace else and we knew what had happened in other urban areas," she said.

Wilmington had a handful of northern suburbs, such as Edgemoor Terrace and Bellevue Manor, before World War II. There were also such identifiable communities as Claymont, Bellefonte, Arden and Talleyville. With the baby boom population explosion and rapid industrial expansion -- particularly Du Pont Co. -- the largely rural hundred was losing its farms and growing Fairfax, Graylyn Crest, Green Acres and like developments

Into those houses came a veritable army of young professionals -- "mostly, early on, Du Pont engineers and chemists," she said -- for whom careers and family rearing shared more-or-less equal priority. What they found was government run by a network of people who had grown up here or had been around for a long time. New Castle County was governed by a three-member Levy Court.

With mutual interest in protecting investment and maintaining the suburban 'little bit city and little bit country' environment they deemed preferable to traditional urban settings, it was only natural that neighbors banded together to form civic associations. In West's case she and others in Indianfield were anxious about what was to happen to the open land across the road which became Darley Woods.

"The only way we were going to have an influence was to act together," she said. "We formed taskforces. ... That was the only way to do it. Many of our people had busy professional lives." Taken together, the taskforces and information-gathering committees became the model for what now are called 'umbrella' civic organizations.

Although West acknowledges that community interests frequently reflected a prevailing 'nimby' -- 'not in my backyard' -- bias, the Brandywine Hundred council managed more often than not to blend the wishes of the immediate area with the larger interests of the hundred and beyond. That, she said, is still underlying policy.

People have come and gone as issues have arisen and faded from public interest, but out of the process emerged several council leaders who went on to hold public office. Philip Cloutier, Gwynne Smith, David Ennis, David Brady, Richard Sincock and Clarice Heckert were state legislators; Thomas Gordon is a former county executive; and Robert Weiner is a present County Council member. West has held several appointive government offices. Marston Fox was responsible for securing the strip along the Delaware River that is now Fox Point State Park.

As would be expected, the council's record is a mixture of successes and failures and several results that fell in between. Interstate 95 parallels the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad right-of-way, as the council desired, but also bisects Ashbourne Hills, which the council fought. Brandywine Town Center commercial complex was built but to a negotiated design and a larger portion of the former Brandywine Raceway property is now being developed residentially. The former William du Pont estate became Bellevue State Park; an expanded highway system in the Blue Ball area is combined with public parkland; the Brandywine Hundred regional library has replaced the outgrown Concord Pike library. Projects like the widening of Naamans Road took considerably longer than had been hoped, but eventually were completed. More significantly, the land use process has evolved from the original 16-page not-so-comprehensive comprehensive plan into a more structured and professionally managed operation and community voices are routinely heard as matters flow through the political process.

West said that, if it appears the council has lost some of its clout in recent years, that is understandable. Brandywine Hundred, she said, "is pretty well built out" and generates few of the old flash-point controversies. Nevertheless, she added, there is still a role for the council as a watchdog to forestall erosion of quality-of-life and to maintain the livability of now mature and settled suburbs. And the 'umbrella civic association' idea continues to have validity in the county's growth areas.

It might be said that if the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred did not exist, it would be a good idea to invent it.

 The enthusiasm which usually greets a new professional baseball season is tempered this year by continuing allegations that Barry Bonds's achievements are flawed by his alleged use of illegal performance-enhancing steroids. The San Francisco Giants outfielder vies with Ruth, Aaron, DiMaggio and Williams as arguably the greatest ever to play the game.

Major league baseball owes it to fans of all sports to thoroughly and objectively investigate the extent to which this form of drug abuse has affected the game. A crucial part of that is whether Bonds should become another 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson and be made to more than his proportionate share of responsibility. At stake here is more than just whether his records should be marked with asterisks.

2006. All rights reserved.

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