Parkland still possible
Housing OK’d but there’s still hope to save orphanage land
New Castle County Council approved a plan to build a 260-home development on the Felician Sisters’ 181-acre parcel on East Chestnut Hill Road, but that doesn’t mean the push to preserve the land is over.
In fact, according to state legislators, the idea to turn part of the property into a county park is still very much on the table.
“I know it’s not a done deal for the Felician Sisters, and it’s not a done deal for the state,” Rep. Ed Osienski said. “The question is, is it a done deal for the county?”
The Felician Sisters of North America own the site, which is home to the shuttered Our Lady of Grace orphanage and an expansive open space that extends behind the Todd Estates neighborhood.
As part of their mission, the Sisters want to use their federal tax credits to develop a portion of the property into 60 low-income apartments. They plan to sell the rest to Joe Setting and Greg Lingo of Montchanin-based Setting Properties Inc., who want to build 114 townhouses, 56 duplexes and 30 single-family homes costing between $200,000 and $300,000 on the land, despite outrage from nearby residents who want the county and state to buy it for a public park.
On Tuesday night, county council voted 11 to 1 in favor of the 260-home development with Councilwoman Lisa Diller as the only opposing vote, but State Sen. Bryan Townsend insists the decision doesn’t mean what people may think.
“It means the Sisters could start building the apartments very soon. It doesn’t mean [Setting] will build the houses, but they could build the houses,” he said.
The Sisters have said they are open to selling the land to the state or county, but their main concern is fulfilling 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 Setting Properties. Selling to a developer also helps the Sisters fund future missions in the community.
Because the land has not been sold yet, Townsend thinks there is still an opportunity for the county and state to buy it, if both entities move quickly and decisively, but so far, only the state has come to the table.
The state’s Open Space Council has already dedicated $250,000 and recently, through legislation that funds state construction projects, the state made a commitment to pay $1.25 million toward a potential purchase.
The state’s commitment only covers a portion of the $5.9 million appraised value of the property, but could be the first in a series of allocations if the county is willing to match funds. Townsend said the expectation is that a down payment could be made for the property – derailing Setting’s plan – and the state and county would then come up with the additional millions to pay the Sisters back over time.
“This is a huge step forward,” Townsend said. “There’s money that’s been allocated now if a deal comes forward and that’s never happened before.”
“The county has to come to the table now and offer support,” he added. “The state is only going to do this if the county is an equal partner.”
County Executive Matt Meyer said he’s been trying to find the funding by reaching out to different groups and individuals, including those in the private sector, and asking them to chip in.
He said he wants to see the land preserved, but he’s in a difficult position.
A few months before he was sworn into office in January, Meyer said, the county’s unionized employees – 87 percent of its workforce – were promised 5 percent pay raises spread over the next three years. The increase will cost the county about $5.5 million, and Meyer said officials are struggling to come up with the money.
“It’s hard to justify a park when we can’t even pay our employees,” he said.
He said he knows preserving the former orphanage site is important to many residents, but the county owns thousands of acres of parkland and each park has it’s own budgetary needs. He said he is working on a list of park priorities which he hopes to release soon.
“Obviously, that will dictate how much we can commit to doing this,” Meyer said. “I mean, open space is precious. It’s really important. I’ve visited Ogletown Pond and walked through there. This is a difficult transaction because the state and county are operating in difficult fiscal times, but we will do what we can to preserve open space in the county and especially there on Route 4.”
Townsend said the bond bill dictating the state’s $1.25 million commitment is good until June 30, 2018, but the more pressing deadline is how long the Sisters are willing to wait. He said he would be “shocked” if the Sisters are still open to negotiating a sale for parkland next June without a deal finalized.
Still, he’s optimistic that the state and county can work together to make it a reality.
“I remain very hopeful that county-level officials will see the merits in this project and how visionary it is to have a park for this community long term and how important it is when you’ve got the state willing to be a partner and the owner of the property, the Sisters, willing to sell,” Townsend said. “You don’t have this combination happen very often at a location that is truly a gem for a community in need of a parkland. It’s the perfect storm of positive forces that seems to be running into the imperfect storm of other frustrations.”
A plan calls for building more than 200 housing units on the site of the Our Lady of Grace orphanage on Chestnut Hill Road, east of Newark.