Park­land still pos­si­ble

Hous­ing OK’d but there’s still hope to save or­phan­age land

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

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.”

NEWARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

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.

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