August 2007

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BACKING: County Executive Christopher Coons supports the ordinance before Council that would tighten eligibility for property tax and sewer fee exemptions and reduce benefits for seniors and the disabled. It retains benefits for the majority of those currently eligible "while closing loopholes that offer breaks to wealthy out-of-staters who view our county as a retirement tax haven," he said in a statement issued in response to a Delaforum inquiry. The law would apply to every property owner who turns 65 after June 30, 2007. Coons said it would "continue providing tax assistance for those living on fixed incomes and with limited means." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Back from its five-week summer recess, County Council breezed through a light agenda on Aug. 28, but a couple of hot issues waiting in the wings leave no doubt that the respite will be short-lived.

Councilman George Smiley, as he previously announced he would, introduced a proposed ordinance to sharply cut residential property tax and sewer fee exemptions for seniors and the disabled. Councilman William Tansey did not bring forward a measure to require a three-fourths majority to enact any future tax increase, but promised to do so after a technical glitch is corrected. There was no clear indication how their colleagues felt about the proposals, but Council president Paul Clark in a separate context during a finance committee meeting stressed the need to provide money to pay for services residents want and expect.

Smiley's proposal limits the tax breaks to minimums required by state law, imposes a four-year residency requirement to qualify to receive an exemption and all but eliminates any for houses assessed for more than $125,000.  However, it keeps the breaks intact for anyone currently receiving them. Not doing so, the councilman said, would be "unfair." Tansey said the ordinance drafted for him to implement his proposal was incorrectly worded to merely change a Council rule, which could easily be suspended by a simple majority "whenever they wanted to put something through." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CLARIFICATION: Commonwealth Group is continuing to negotiate with Schell Brothers as well as other possible builders of Renaissance Village. Delaforum erroneously reported that a previously announced agreement with Schell had apparently fallen through. Brett Saddler, executive director of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., said he misspoke while giving a report on the status of the project when he made that announcement in June. "Due to the size and nature of the Renaissance Village project, there is likely to be more than one builder," he said.

Saddler also noted that the most recent Delaforum article about the project did not include his saying that it remains on schedule. "For a project of this magnitude going from the property purchase in late August of 2005 to record plan approval by County Council in mid-June of 2007 is extraordinary. This project would normally take from three to five years to get through the land development process if there weren't the coordinated efforts of the developer, county and state officials, and especially the Claymont community," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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The county Planning Board and Department of Land Use have endorsed a proposed ordinance that would make Centreville the third community to be granted 'hometown' zoning.

At a meeting on Aug. 21 the board voted unanimously to recommend that County Council approve the measure after it returns from its summer recess. That action followed the reading of a department recommendation which waxed almost idyllic about the merits of preserving the historic, cultural and commercial character of the community long considered the core of Christiana Hundred's fabled 'Château Country'. "While standing as a visual reminder of the past, these assets also enhance property values, increase local pride and bolster economic development," the department declared.

Like Claymont and Hockessin before it, Centreville will establish a design review advisory committee to pass on proposed projects involving properties in a designated 59-acre path along Kennett Pike between Center Meeting and Snuff Mill Roads. While the village plan sets forth guidelines for changes to the exteriors of properties, the department called for 'encouraging' property owners to make interior modifications in ways that "protect the architectural integrity of [the] structure." Eighteen properties in the designated area are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafroum article.)

Enactment of the ordinance apparently would for the first time confer force of law on long-time residents' preference for gentile Centreville over gauche Centerville.

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SEAT FILLED: Aletha Ramseur, a retired teacher who lives in Talley Hill, was appointed to fill the vacancy on the Brandywine school board. The four members present for the board's monthly meeting on Aug. 20 voted unanimously for her without substantive discussion. Superintendent Jim Scanlon said choosing from among three well-qualified applicants was difficult. Ramseur will be sworn in during the September meeting to succeed Nancy Doorey, who resigned with two years remaining in her second term on the board. Debra Heffernan and Mark Huxsoll did not attend the board meeting.

Ramseur taught for 25 years at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the Colonial district. She holds a Ph.D. and masters degree in education from the University of Delaware and a bachelor degree from Delaware State University. A native Delawarean, she graduated from St. Elizabeth High School. One of her children is a Concord High graduate and two graduated from Archmere Academy. Since retirement, she has conducted a business assisting parents in developing individual education plans for children with disabilities. Ramseur said that as a board member she will "focus on improving education for all children."  (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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The Brandywine school board, as expected, approved a $130.3 million preliminary budget for the current fiscal year. It voted unanimously without discussion at the board meeting on Aug. 20. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Environmental remediation has begun at the site with demolition of the buildings in the former Brookview apartments complex scheduled to run from October through March, 2008.

Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., who shared that timetable with the community Design Review Advisory Committee at a meeting on Aug. 16, said demolition will occur in sections as remediation is completed and be followed by roads, utility and other infrastructure work starting in January. Meanwhile, he revealed, the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture is again negotiating with a prospective builder, its previously announced arrangement with Ocean Atlantic Associates and affiliated builder Schell Brothers apparently having fallen through.

There is, as yet, no building schedule and the current upheaval in the mortgage market coming on the heels of a housing slump "has thrown a wrench into the works," Saddler, who is also a member of the review committee, said. He added, however, that the developer "will get no return on [its] investment until the houses are built and the commercial [property] is built." Carolyn Mercandante, another committee member, expressed concern that selling the properties will be an uphill effort with banks and other lenders now unwilling "to lend [mortgage] money to everybody who comes through the door." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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OPINION DELAYED: The Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee recessed its Aug. 16 meeting without taking a stand on the proposed rezoning of the Holy Rosary property to permit American College to relocate on part of it. Committee member George Lossé said community residents had not received adequate notice that the matter would be on the committee's agenda. Five residents of adjacent Yale Avenue said they had concerns about the effect of the college would have on their neighborhood. But, they said, they and their neighbors have so far received virtually no information about the project.

Chris Sarafian, its executive vice president, told the meeting that the college has no intention of ever being anything but a modest-size school. Its present plan is to renovate the historic Grubb house and a small parish structure on the property, he said. Any future buildings will be architecturally compatible with the existing structures, he promised. But he did reveal that the college wants to acquire a building on the Harbor House property and is negotiating with the Catholic diocese possible purchase of the former Childrens Home property on Green Street. No one from Holy Rosary attended the meeting, which will resume on Sept. 12. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Restructuring plans for three Brandywine schools will not call for a state takeover, privatization or conversion to charter schools.

Given the relatively small numbers of students by which P.S. du Pont Intermediate, Talley Middle and Brandywine High Schools fell short of meeting standards, it is very possible that remedial steps taken during the coming school year will eliminate the necessity for drastic measures in the 2008-09 year, Superintendent Jim Scanlon told a sparsely attended board meeting on Aug. 6. "I think we can make it," he said. "I believe the state [education department] is going to allow us to determine what the restructuring will be." Plans for each of the affected schools must be submitted by April, 2008.

Under complex formulas in the soon-to-expire federal No Child Left Behind Act, no more than 94 African-American, special-education and low-income students at Brandywine High, 53 at P.S. and 29 at Talley failed to make 'adequate yearly progress'. The exact numbers are not known because it is probable that some students fell into more than one measured category. Nevertheless, Scanlon said, "this is a critical year for us" with a need to "focus on individual kids," making better use of instructional time and improving 'instruction strategies' to bring the students up to standards. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CANDIDATES IDENTIFIED: The three applicants for the vacant seat on the Brandywine school board are Robert McWilliams, Aletha Ramseur and Donna Turner, district superintendent Jim Scanlon announced. He did not provide any biographical information. The board, he said, has interviewed them behind closed doors and will formally make its decision during its regularly scheduled business meeting on Aug. 20. Whoever is chosen will have to stand for election in May, 2008, in order to complete the term of former member Nancy Doorey, who resigned the volunteer position after the 2007 school board election. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Air monitors throughout the area and a committee of local residents will determine if the Claymont Steel effectively controls emissions of potentially hazardous dust generated by its plant.

James Brunswick, ombudsman with the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, told a public hearing on Aug. 1 that the company has agreed to pay the $35,000 cost of the monitoring program for a year. The hearing was called to get public comment on the proposed remedial actions, which include paving roadways, using trucks instead of the internal railroad to haul scrap metal, moving the plant's slag operation inside its melt shop and planting a row of trees to serve as a buffer along Naamans Road. It was reported that the department received 65 complaints about the dust between June 1 and July 31.

Most of the hearing was taken up by an attender emphatically complaining that both the department and the company have taken too long in addressing the problem. He demanded that the plant be shut down until it was remedied. Company chairman Jeff Bradley said that isn't going to happen, but added that Claymont Steel "has done everything they (the department) asked plus more" to remedy the problem and will continue to cooperate. He said the company has invested some $15 million in the plant since acquiring it from its previous owner, the Chinese government, which "put just about nothing into it."

Department officials would not give a timetable for implementing the remedial steps once the company is formally ordered to do so.

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SCHOOLS RATED: Nine Brandywine district schools received a 'superior' rating under the annual assessment required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Four are on 'academic watch', three on 'academic progress' and one on 'academic review'. Delaware Department of Education made the ratings public on Aug. 1. 'Superior' is the highest of five ratings determined by a complex system which measures both a school's overall improvement in student achievement and improvement within targeted demographic categories. 'Watch' is the lowest of the ratings; 'progress' the fourth, and 'review' the third.

Brandywine ratings: 'Superior' -- Brandywood, Carrcroft, Forwood, Lancashire, Lombardy, Maple Lane, Claymont, Mount Pleasant Elementary, and Springer. 'Review' -- Darley Road. 'Progress' -- P.S. du Pont, Hanby and Concord. 'Watch' -- Harlan, Talley, Brandywine and Mount Pleasant High. No Brandywine school received a 'commendable' rating, the second highest. All in the lower categories are listed as 'under improvement' which requires them to offer the option of choicing into higher-rated schools and supplemental services for students whose performance is not adequately improving. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on August 30, 2007

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