The push for a park

Feli­cian Sis­ters open to al­ter­na­tive to con­tro­ver­sial de­vel­op­ment

Newark Post - - Front Page - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­pub.com

Land de­vel­op­ment dis­putes aren’t unique to New Cas­tle County, or even Delaware, and sit­u­a­tions like the one sur­round­ing the Feli­cian Sis­ters’ 181-acre par­cel on East Ch­est­nut Hill Road are a tale as old as time. The com­mu­nity wants a pub­lic park and the prop­erty own­ers want fair com­pen­sa­tion for their land, but the state doesn’t have enough money to buy it and the own­ers can’t af­ford to wait.

With their hands tied, the Sis­ters are con­sid­er­ing sell­ing their land to a res­i­den­tial devel­oper, but it isn’t a done deal yet and the com­mu­nity isn’t giv­ing up.

“I think we can do this,” said Frank Warnock, a Har­mony Woods res­i­dent who is lead­ing the fight against the de­vel­op­ment. “Ev­ery park in this county had a cham­pion be­hind it that made it hap­pen.”

Warnock said he’s feel­ing op­ti­mistic af­ter re­ceiv­ing a let­ter from the Sis­ters on June 10, in which they said they are open to sell­ing the land to the state or county for a park and have been dis­cussing it with leg­is­la­tors and of­fi­cials.

“Our po­si­tion all along has been that we are open to any out­come that al­lows us to com­plete the apart­ment project within the re­quired time frame and pro­vides fair com­pen­sa­tion for the re­main­der of the land,” the let­ter stated.

How­ever, the sit­u­a­tion is not that sim­ple.

The Feli­cian Sis­ters of North Amer­ica own the land at 487 E. Ch­est­nut Hill Road, which is just east of Ne­wark. The site is home to the shut­tered Our Lady of Grace or­phan­age and an ex­pan­sive open space that ex­tends be­hind the Todd Es­tates neigh­bor­hood.

The Sis­ters have been at­tempt­ing to de­velop the prop­erty into low-in­come hous­ing for sev­eral years as part of their mis­sion, but their progress de­pended upon the avail­abil­ity of fed­eral tax cred­its. Last year, they re­ceived cred­its from the Delaware State Hous­ing Au­thor­ity and re­leased a plan for 60 low-in­come apart­ments. The hous­ing was pre­sented as part of a larger project by Joe Set­ting and Greg Lingo of Montchanin-based Set­ting Prop­er­ties Inc., who are plan­ning to build hun­dreds of town­houses, du­plexes and sin­gle-fam­ily homes cost­ing be­tween $200,000 and $300,000 on the rest of the prop­erty.

Nearby res­i­dents are out­raged at the thought of more homes, in­creased traf­fic and the neg­a­tive im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, and some have pub­licly ac­cused the Sis­ters of try­ing to make a quick buck.

How­ever, State Rep. Ed Osien­ski, whose dis­trict en­com­passes the prop­erty, said the Sis­ters don’t re­ally have much of a choice if they want to ful­fill their mis­sion. The cur­rent zon­ing does not al­low the apart­ments as a stand­alone project, only as part of a larger res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, which is likely why the Sis­ters sought out Set­tling Prop­er­ties. Sell­ing to a devel­oper would also help the Sis­ters fund fu­ture mis­sions in the com­mu­nity, he said.

“I don’t think they re­al­ized when they came out with their first plan for the prop­erty that there was go­ing to be that much push­back,” he said.

Osien­ski said the Sis­ters could try to re­zone the prop­erty so the ma­jor­ity can re­main open space, but that process typ­i­cally takes 18 to 24 months at the county level, and the out­come is un- cer­tain. If they wait, he said, they would be risk­ing their tax cred­its.

Ac­cord­ing to Su­san Elia­son, di­rec­tor of hous­ing de­vel­op­ment at DSHA, as soon as the Sis­ters got the cred­its, the clock started tick­ing on the apart­ments. The Sis­ters must have the 60 low-in­come apart­ments com­pletely built and a cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy is­sued by Dec. 31, 2017, or they lose their tax cred­its.

Osien­ski said he un­der­stands where the Sis­ters are com­ing from.

“They said, ‘We’re not will­ing to take that risk and take that gam­ble at this time,’” he said. “I mean, the dead­line is fast ap­proach­ing and they haven’t even got a shovel into the ground yet.”

Elia­son said DSHA can give the Sis­ters an ex­ten­sion if it seems un­likely they will meet the dead­line be­cause of rea­sons out of their con­trol.

“Such as the cur­rent land use process. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing they can con­trol,” she said. “They are op­er­at­ing within the sys­tem, and it has be­come very com­pli­cated.”

If they lose the cred­its, Elia­son said, there is a way to reap­ply.

“They would have to make a brand new ap­pli­ca­tion and it is a com­pet­i­tive process, so if they com­pletely lost the cred­its and wanted to come back, there would be no guar­an­tee they would get those cred­its again,” she said.

The plan for the prop­erty has been mod­i­fied at least three times since it was first pre­sented to the pub­lic last sum­mer. The changes have ad­dressed con­cerns ex­pressed by neigh­bors, elect- ed of­fi­cials and the Delaware De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­trol re­gard­ing the neg­a­tive im­pact on the wet­lands sur­round­ing the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment.

The orig­i­nal plan would have en­croached upon the 450-foot wooded buf­fer nec­es­sary for in­sects and am­phib­ians to breed in Ogle­town Pond, so Set­tling re­designed the sub­di­vi­sion to ad­dress those en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and shifted the lots pre­vi­ously around the pond to the bot­tom left of the de­vel­op­ment. The de­vel­op­ers also agreed to leave 80 pre­cent of the prop­erty — ap­prox­i­mately 145 acres — as open space.

In ad­di­tion, con­nect­ing roads with neigh­bor­ing Breeze­wood and Todd Es­tates were elim­i­nated at the re­quest of neigh­bors.

Warnock, who started a group called “Save Ogle­town Pond” to try to pro­tect the wood­lands, said the changes to the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment are great, but they don’t com­pete with the best-cas­esce­nario of a pub­lic park.

He and Todd Es­tates res­i­dent An­gela Con­nolly wrote the Sis­ters a let­ter in May in the hopes that both par­ties could get on the same page.

“We were get­ting mixed sig­nals from dif­fer­ent peo­ple about their po­si­tion,” Warnock said. “We didn’t re­ally know if they were open to a di­a­logue and open to the idea of spin­ning off the ma­jor­ity of the prop­erty that could be put up for sale and could be bought by the county and the state.”

On June 10, they re­ceived a re­sponse from Sis­ter Mary Christo­pher Moore who as- sured them “our de­sired out­comes are not ter­ri­bly far apart.” In the let­ter, Moore ex­plained how the Sis­ters’ hands are tied due to the ap­proach­ing dead­line, the zon­ing is­sues and their de­sire to ful­fill their mis­sion, but they want what is best for the Ogle­town com­mu­nity.

Warnock said the let­ter is “strong ev­i­dence” that the Sis­ters are will­ing to ex­plore other op­tions and pos­si­bly aban­don the Set­tling de­vel­op­ment plan.

“The plan­ets are align­ing, I like to say. We just need a few more good things to hap­pen and we’ll just go from there,” he said.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend said there is cur­rently no money in the state bud­get to buy the land, but he and Osien­ski re­quested DNREC co­or­di­nate an ap­praisal just to see how much it would cost.

“Ed and I are push­ing hard for it, but it was a very tough bud­get year,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to New Cas­tle County Coun­cil­woman Lisa Diller, there is money in the county bud­get, but not enough to cover the en­tire pur­chase, so the state would need to pitch in.

“We can’t do it alone,” she said.

In the mean­time, Townsend said, the Sis­ters aren’t slow­ing down. They can’t wait while the state and county scrape to­gether the funds, or they risk not ful­fill­ing their mis­sion.

“This is an ex­am­ple of how stuff costs money,” Townsend said. “If the com­mu­nity wants to con­serve open space when a devel­oper wants to de­velop it, then they need to come to­gether.”

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

A con­cep­tual draw­ing shows a 265-unit hous­ing de­vel­op­ment planned for the for­mer Our Lady of Grace or­phan­age site on East Ch­est­nut Hill Road.

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