February 3,  2010

Rezoning of Pilot School site
headed to County Council

Columbia Place, a proposed 147-unit age-restricted residential development in western Brandywine Hundred, emerged as a sort of test case for the veracity of the comprehensive development plan, applicability of a key provision of the Unified Development Code and the integrity of the land use approval process.

During a contentious two-hour presentation before County Council's land use committee on Feb. 2, the project was variously described as a good illustration of the kind of 'smart growth' deemed a preferable alternative to 'suburban sprawl' and a serious threat to the style of life residents of the state's northernmost hundred cherish.

When Council next meets in plenary session on Feb. 9, it is scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance to rezone the 15-acre Pilot School property on Garden-of-Eden Road, near Concord Pike, to permit Reybold Group to redevelop the site to include 17 single-family houses, 50 townhouses and 80 condominium apartments in two four-story buildings. The project has been vehemently opposed, primarily by residents of neighboring Tavistock and Edenridge, who have mounted a concerted effort to block it or, at least, considerably scale it back.

If normal procedure is followed, Councilman Robert Weiner, who previously has voiced opposition to the project, will control whether a vote is taken or the measure is tabled. He represents the area and as such is sponsor of the proposed ordinance. At the end of the committee meeting, he said he intended to study the points raised by both sides, but added the opponents "still have questions [and] I, too, have questions."

Although president Paul Clark and other members of Council praised the objectors for their diligence and thoroughness in preparing and presenting their case, it appeared that a majority of the 12 members who attended the meeting were inclined to support the Department of Land Use's recommendation that rezoning be granted. All 13 members of Council are also members of all of its standing committees. William Tansey had an excused absence.

If rezoning is granted, Reybold Group will still have to proceed to approval of a record plan. In that phase of the approval process, when the department certifies that the plan meets all the standards of the development code Council is required to give final approval. It can send the plan back to the department for further clarification only a limited number of times.

"The plan will be 100% code-compliant when [the approval process] is completed," David Culver, department general manager said.

"This isn't a bad plan," Clark said. "It meets all the requirements we've set up for redevelopment. ... The alternative is leapfrogging down the road to a green field and tearing it up."

Just the contrary is key argument the objectors make. They are opposed to allowing the increased density that proceeding under the redevelopment provisions of the development code allows.

"Pilot School is unquestionably a fully-functioning fully-utilized [sic] property. As such the Columbia Place plan is not entitled to redevelopment status under the [code]. ... Land Use [Department] isn't protecting us from out-of-control development," Daniel Mulveny testified.

"This is spot zoning. The parcel is small. It has been singled out for special treatment," he added.

"Our community does not oppose development of the Pilot School site. What we oppose is the over-development of the site," Meg Campbell said.

"Granting a redevelopment bonus for a residential site ... sets a troubling precedent," Chuck Landry, land use chairman of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said. "Every site in New Castle County with a structure on it can be considered as a redevelopment site."

The Pilot School site should appropriately be "designated for medium-density development," he said.

Culver, however, said that it was never intended that the redevelopment provisions in the code be limited to abandoned or deteriorated properties. He said 69 plans have been offered so far under those provisions and "many of those sites are very viable." Moreover, he added, the same amount of added density could have been obtained if Reybold Group had sought approval under other provisions, such as age-restricted or 'workforce' housing, in the code.

"This plan meets the core intent of the redevelopment ordinance," Councilman George Smiley said. He added that it would not make sense to allow a property to deteriorate so redevelopment provisions could kick in. "You don't let the value go down before you start to improve it," he said.

Added density is a tool provided as an incentive to achieve the kind of "walkable, transit-oriented" development envisioned by the comprehensive plan, Lisa Goodman, Reybold Group's lawyer, testified. "This plan is a poster child for that wording to come to fruition," she said. It's intent, she added, is to "take an old site and make it better than it was."

She said the density of the proposed complex is 9.7dwelling units to the acre, with 41.5% of the site to be dedicated as open space. That, she added, is slightly more than half the 18.5 units-per-acre approved for the Darley Green complex in Claymont "which Councilman Weiner was a great champion of."

Goodman characterized the opposition to Columbia Place as basing its position on 'misinformation'. She cited several claims in a recent newspaper advertisement as "simply untrue."

Councilman Penrose Hollins disputed Mulveny's claim that "there is no public support" for the project. Council members "have received numerous comments and e-mails in support," Hollins said. Peggy Schultz, of the League of Women Voters, expressed unqualified support in testimony at the meeting.

Culver said that virtually every plan that comes to the department generates opposition, even at the opposite end of the density spectrum. "We had just as much opposition from the neighborhood to schools being torn down for sports fields," he said.

The general manager also disputed a claim that the Planning Board stood in opposition. That body voted four-to-three with one member abstaining to concur with the land use department's favorable recommendation. Because its by-laws require five votes for a recommendation the board officially submitted no recommendation, but a summary its discussion was filed with Council. Culver said the board "after a lengthy debate had a feeling of approval."

He denied that the department tended, more often than not, to approve development plans. However, he said, plans that are disapproved rarely get to Council and, thereby, into public view.

Asked by Councilman Bill Bell if he felt the Columbia Place plan was in keeping with the character of the surrounding area, Culver replied, "The development is consistent with the neighboring community. ... We found it will have no adverse effect."

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Read previous Delaforum article: Planning Board is split on the proposal for Pilot School site

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