What if Rodney vote fails?
Officials discuss consequences of not passing referendum
The potential consequences of a failed referendum on the Rodney project came into focus this week as the city of Newark prepares to embark on a public relations campaign to sell residents on the plan.
This spring, the city will ask voters to approve borrowing up to $9 million to turn the shuttered dorms into a stormwater pond that will also include many park amenities.
At a council meeting Monday, city officials acknowledged publicly what many residents have likely suspected – that if the city doesn’t buy Rodney, there’s a good chance the 7.24-acre site will be turned into a large apartment complex.
“If we don’t buy it and develop it, someone will develop it,” Tim Filasky, interim public works director, said. “They’re not going to buy it to build stormwater management. I can guarantee that.”
The city is under contract to buy the land from the University of Delaware and has three more years to make a final decision. However, if the deal does not go forward, UD would be free to sell the land to another buyer.
The land is currently zoned for university use but has a “subzoning” of garden apartments.
“The zoning for UD is an overlay, and if a parcel is no longer educational, it reverts to its previous zoning,” city spokeswoman Kelly Bachman explained.
A developer would be able to build 112 apartment units by right, meaning council approval would not be needed, acting City Manager Tom Coleman said.
A 2014 study found that the Rodney site – when combined with the nearby Dickinson dorm site – would be worth between $6.5 million and $21.5 million if developed into private student housing.
The study found that the highest and best use for the two properties would be to turn them into a “student village” containing a total of 650 to 1,500 beds.
“The buildings would be mid-rise construction and offer a variety of student amenities. The village would provide a sense of community for students and provide part of the college experience,” Jay White of Apex Realty Advisory wrote in the report.
That density of housing would require rezoning, which White noted “is not too difficult” in Newark.
Meanwhile, Filasky noted that if the city does not buy Rodney, it would still need to undertake smaller projects to reduce flooding in the area.
He said the city would look to acquire 17 to 24 homes in the area – likely by eminent domain – in order to use the land for stormwater management facilities. The cost of buying the land, going through condemnation proceedings and demolition would rival the cost of the Rodney project, Filasky said.
The city has been considering purchasing the Rodney site since 2015 when UD announced it was closing the dorms.
Filasky said the Rodney site is in an ideal location to solve a major part of the city’s flooding issues. Currently, stormwater pipes carrying runoff from Oaklands and surrounding neighborhoods converge near the Rodney site and during heavy rain, overwhelm the system and cause flooding.
The pond would give the water a place to collect, and the water would be released in a controlled manner over a longer period of time. That would alleviate flooding in that area as well as downstream in Old Newark and Devon.
Last month, officials unveiled an $8.1 million plan to build the pond and a surrounding park that they hope would become a “unique recreational destination” featuring a walking trail, playground, fishing pier and other amenities.
On Monday, council gave Coleman the authority to apply for up to $9 million from the state’s revolving loan fund. The move locks in a 2-percent interest rate but does not obligate the city to actually borrow the money or move forward with the project.
If the referendum passes, the city will pay off the loan by increasing the monthly stormwater fee charged to property owners. The stormwater fee, which takes affect in January, will charge residents between $1.77 and $5.31 each month — based on the amount of impervious surfaces on their property — to fund the city’s stormwater operations and fix aging infrastructure.
If the Rodney project moves forward, the stormwater fee will increase, with the average resident paying an additional $1.10 per month. That equates to the average resident paying $264 over the 20 years it will take to pay off the loan.
Councilman Stu Markham was the lone opposing vote Monday, noting that he would rather build the pond first and then add park amenities as funding becomes available.
“I support the idea of the stormwater project. I can remember how badly that area floods,” he said. “But I don’t want the Cadillac version.”
Starting in March, the city will undertake a public relations campaign – including meetings with community groups, online videos and social media posts – to encourage residents to put their support behind the project.
“We’ve had some good publicity, but it’s going to take a little more,” Filasky said. “People think it’s nice and everything, until you have to pay for it.”
Councilman Mark Morehead said that while residents affected by the flooding can see the benefits of the project, the city needs to find a way to win over people who live in other areas of Newark.
“I keep getting the question from folks all over town: What’s in it for me?,” Morehead said.
He added that he’s also heard concerns that the pond will become a haven for mosquito breeding. Filasky responded that mosquitos need shallow, standing water to breed, but the pond will be at least 3-feet deep and have an aeration pump.
“Mosquitos don’t like deep water and they don’t like moving water,” Filasky said. “Both those things would be introduced into the pond.”
The next step, which will happen early next year, is for council to set a date for the referendum and approve the question that will be asked of voters.
“The most powerful force in Newark is going to have the final say on this: the voting public,” Councilman Jerry Clifton said.
An artist’s rendering shows what the fishing pier at the Rodney stormwater pond and park could look like.