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A History Lesson in Zoning:
The Hercules Tract and Neighbors Who Need Help

by Christine Whitehead

For many decades land use planners in New Castle County believed that the land around Hercules would he kept as they had it--in a golf course and open space including forests that were critical natural areas along the Red Clay Creek. People paid large sums of money to live nearby because they thought it was a protected area and because it is among the most beautiful areas in New Castle County. But we have learned a lesson about planning for open space depending on private owners whose lands are not deed restricted. By the mid-Nineties Hercules was struggling financially and the beautiful meadows and forest north of the Lancaster Pike and Centreville Road were slated for development by a Capano corporation. Office buildings were located on the south side. This lovely area had been put in a "Growth Zone" in the County's Comprehensive Plan. A development of over-55 housing on a steep slope of the Red Clay behind the office buildings was voted on in 1998. Everyone knew by then that it was a bad idea to build on steep slopes because the UDC forbids it, but as an application predating the UDC, it was given approval by Land Use and later the Council.

When the rezoning needed to implement the Unified Development Code was in progress, neighbors on the other side of Hercules complained that a parcel on their side was going to be "upzoned." They suspected mischief. The UDC remapping was supposed to keep properties north of Rt. 40 more or less as they were, but many instances of "up-zoning" began to appear in the maps under review while rumors circulated that Freeberry was in charge of the committee drawing the maps. After pushing for time to review the maps thoroughly and public access to them, the Planning Board was finally told to vote on the entire set of maps. It had no power to change any single parcel. The choice was to implement the new UDC that had already passed or ditch it by refusing to cooperate with the Gordon Administration. This was back when they were the new "reformers." The Planning Board knew the UDC was full of much-needed environmental protections, so we cooperated. In hindsight, I believe the Administration succeeded in making public oversight of rezoning a farce. Not only were dozens of parcels needlessly zoned for a higher use, but the change to quarterly hearings meant so many projects were heard at the same time that anyone wanting to object had to sit for hours into late evenings to do so. The "corrections" to the new maps were put through by parcel numbers. Massive tracts like Astra-Zeneca and Delaware Park were rezoned without the public having any meaningful part in the decision. Decades will pass before we know all the harm that was done, but some of problems are already coming to light.

Now another Capano corporate acquisition of land from Hercules has arrived at the planning stage. Part of the golf course was sold and bad news has come to light. The land is filled with lead and arsenic, among other nasty chemicals that are present at dangerous levels. This land was once a cattle farm where hides were tanned. The beautiful golf course was treated with chemicals. Today the choice is whether to remediate by taking away the bad soil (Is there any good place to put it?) or capping it with a layer of heavy clay and forbidding development of it. Neighbors who live on other parcels that were also once a part of Hercules are trying to get this project stopped so the State can buy the 160 acres. Neighbors wonder why Toll Bros insists on moving forward on this when CHAPS (The Capano Land Development Company Owning The Hercules Parcel) sale to them seems to be contingent on approval of the plan and CHAPS purchase may also be contingent. Are CHAPS and Toll Brothers being allowed to drive up the price to the State while they worry a lot of neighbors about their fate? Many people would like an answer to that question. The citizens have been manipulated for too long.

On November 3rd a technical review of the Toll Bros. plan for Brightfield will be held before the Planning Board. The neighbors will protest and ask for a protective cap. Would you want earth moving vehicles allowing toxic soils to blow on your property where your kids play?

On November 8th the Civic League Land Use Committee will study this situation at 7 PM at Artesian on Churchman's Road. The public is invited to attend.

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Posted: FLR -