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The Public Must Regain Control Over Land Use Policy
in New Castle County

Submitted by Christine Whitehead

Our citizens are facing a threat to the destiny of their neighborhoods. Powerful special interests have slowly, but surely, won more rounds in the fight over how the land in this County will be used. Another round is about to be fought. Ordinances 09-066 and 09-067 are the flashpoints. The Council vote will take place Oct. 13th. The Coons Administration says 066 is meant to simplify the application process for developers. What it really will do, if passed by Council, is take away the public’s right to see and comment on major parts of most subdivision plans at a point when anything could be changed. Ord. 09-067 will allow septic on smaller lots in the sandy, high water table areas.

Testimony by neighbors in the process of approving site development plans that do not need a rezoning is appropriate when neighbors know of serious health or safety concerns that may escape the attention of planners or when they have good reason to believe the plans will cause serious loss to their property values. On a rezoning application, neighbors have a right to express an opinion as to whether the rezoning is needed or in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. In 1997-8 the County rezoned a great number of parcels under the guise of redoing the zoning maps to match the new names of zones in the UDC. Thereafter, most site development approvals could be pushed through in spite of opposition. The rate of building became too fast to be sustained. The financial crisis caught us with a large supply of unsold new homes. Building in the County (except for Middletown) slowed to a trickle. Construction is important to our State’s economy. Thus, when its jobs dry up, the distress ripples through government budgets, businesses and labor markets. So now, the State and County want to focus on creating jobs by making it even easier to build residential or mixed use developments whether or not units will sell.

Our opinion is that that effort is misguided. What is needed to maintain construction jobs is “sustainable development”--a policy that calls for slower, steady, concurrent building that conserves environmental quality. Concurrency means current adequacy. The rate of building would not exceed the capacity of our resources (like water and power) to supply our population. It would not exceed the ability of our citizens to pay for more roads, sewers, and schools. Attention to creating more jobs would be an ongoing priority, and housing would be targeted to areas where plans for new institutions will be creating new jobs. Green belts would exist to benefit all species.

Two years ago, the County switched to a policy called “Smart Growth.” Smart Growth means (1) fast growth; (2) pushing to create so much density of population that we can develop an affordable mass transit system including more rail sooner; and (3) less concern for the environment in our living areas. Mass transit is expensive, as are the new highways that will precede it. The Urban Policy Institute said in 1999, “Since smart growth often steers communities away from automobile use towards mass transit and pedestrian-friendly environments, a faulty assumption often follows that smart growth discourages new transportation infrastructure. However, such thinking is flawed, as the steady push of growth increases the demands upon our roadways. Just as growth is inevitable, so is the expansion and improvement of the infrastructure that supports it.”

To have enough taxpayers to fund all the sewers, bridges, rails, trains, busses, and roads that Smart Growth supporters want, we will have to permit high-rise buildings along the length of every main highway and arterial road in this county. Video presentations on models of the concept show that. School crowding will result as school building only follows increases in pupils. People will still drive their cars, so the notion we will reduce carbon emission this way is false. Families do not get on buses to get to baseball and soccer games. Some people will not ride buses in an age so full of violent people. The air from all the traffic will be worse than it is now. Buses are needed for low income workers, but smaller electric or biofuel ones will have to be purchased. Congestion is not just annoying; it is unhealthy, unsafe, and expensive to handle

The majority of our County residents want a lifestyle that includes a pleasant place for all ages to live; good and safe schools; small convenient commercial centers; greenways and biking trails, open space and parks of all sizes for recreation—like Pike Creek Valley. But now the last part of Pike Creek’s open space is threatened with development. Could Ordinance 09-066 have anything to do with this? Maybe. It has a provision to allow for unlimited changes in open spaces by a vote of only 2/3rds of the lot owners. Change can already be made in a community’s open space between the Record Plan stage and building by the developers. With the pre-construction sale of new homes, this new provision insures builders can also change open space after 2/3 of their homes are sold.

The concept of zoning was created to protect property values by reducing the potential for unplanned and unnecessary changes in a neighborhood. Today in New Castle County, your home can lose a huge chunk of its value because that land behind you can become a shopping center with multiple stories of apartments above it. Have you looked at all the ‘bonuses” developers can get in the UDC? The number of “units” (homes, apartments or businesses) in a “mixed use” or other community does not depend entirely on the way the land is zoned. Developers can get more units any number of ways. They can: (1) transfer development rights from land the State and County want to save; (2) add many more units if they build near a railroad station or on a mass transit line; (3) add more units for building a mixed use project or creating a new village with an urban core and employment; (4) get some reduction in lot size for saving an historic house (= more lots); (5) add more units for “infilling” in older neighborhoods; (6) add even more for building age restricted communities; and (7) add between 50% to 100% more units for building affordable housing within a more expensive residential development. The goals generally make sense, but think how many units a smart developer can get if he combines several of these bonuses to get the maximum units! Your neighborhood could become crowded beyond anything you ever imagined with this kind of land use policy. The result effectively rezones property automatically, and DelDOT will never be able to keep up with new roads to meet the need. Your right to express your opinion in an effective way will be lost with 066, although it schedules hearings.

How can you get Council members to reflect the wishes of their constituents? The first thing you can do is tell them you oppose 066 and 067. Call 395-8383 or email them. The second is join others who feel the same way, and the third is to become more active in political campaigns. Right now organized factions with their own special interests to promote pour effort into electing their candidates. That must be offset by efforts to get new people who come from the grass roots and will operate in the public interest to run for office.

The Land Use Department is truly in charge of all site development now. It is seldom, if ever, persuaded by a worried group of neighbors to make changes due to adverse impacts. The consent of the governed is no longer an operating principle in County government.

Our State Constitution gives planning and zoning authority to the State Legislature. They delegated it to the counties. But only New Castle County has no citizen planning commission that gets to make a real decision about new developments. Our advisory Planning Board needs real power. Ask State legislators to put some reasonable limits on what the County can do to change our neighborhoods and our entire lifestyle. If you do not wish to live squeezed like the overtaxed citizens of northern New Jersey and Staten Island and if you value your home, you should get involved now. You will find a regional civic organization for your area on the Internet: The Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance; The Southern New Castle County Alliance; The Pike Creek Valley League; the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association; the Council of Civic Associations in Brandywine Hundred; the Bear-Glasgow Council of Civic Organizations; the 7 & 40 Alliance; the Fox Point Association. Links to them can be found on

Your involvement is needed to keep Delaware livable.

Christine Whitehead
Member of the Board of the Civic League for New Castle County for past 10 years
Member of the MLCA
Former Member of the New Castle County Planning Board for 4 years
Former Assistant New Castle County Attorney

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Posted: FLR -