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12/2/2006
New Castle County outlines plan to control growth

Draft aims for less congestion, greater convenience and a stronger sense of place

By ANGIE BASIOUNY, The News Journal
Posted Saturday, December 2, 2006

If New Castle County wants to corral suburban sprawl, it must concentrate on redevelopment and filling in gaps north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and centralize growth south of it.

This approach is the focus of a 196-page draft released Thursday that will become the county's next Comprehensive Plan. The plan, which state law requires be updated every five years, is one of the most important documents in the county because it guides land use -- what goes where and how much of it is allowed.

The draft marks a major shift in direction toward controlling sprawl, preserving pristine land, creating walkable communities that have a mix of commercial and residential uses, and opening the door to more housing options.

Officials hope the result will be less traffic congestion, greater convenience and stronger sense of place for current residents and the more than 98,500 people projected to move in by 2030.

"This is not just about new development," said Charles Baker, general manager of the county's Land Use Department. "This is also about the quality of life for existing communities."

The controlled-growth philosophy was chosen after leaders rejected three other scenarios: allow development to continue as it has for the past decade; accelerate growth in the still-rural southern end; or slow overall growth by pushing development out to surrounding counties.

Using growth models, the county found the last option would have resulted in the worst traffic congestion because the number of commuters would surge from outlying locations like Kent County in Delaware or Cecil County in Maryland.

"Growth is inevitable because we are an attractive area," County Councilman Robert Weiner said. "So we can either manage that growth or not manage it. Our current method is basically to disperse it in a sprawl pattern, which requires an investment by state and county government in infrastructure we can no longer afford."

Early reaction was positive to the plan's overall concepts, with many saying they favored any approach reining in the kind of sprawl visible in the Bear-Glasgow area. But questions remain about how the plan would be implemented and how roads, sewer and other infrastructure would keep pace.

"There is a difference between planning and doing," Baker said.

Baker and County Executive Chris Coons led the update process that began in September 2005. More than 200 government officials, developers, attorneys, civic activists and others met in four subcommittees for months to talk about the county's vision and craft recommendations ultimately folded into the draft.

Now, it's the public's turn.

The plan is posted on the county Web site and residents are urged to study it and send comments before a final version is adopted in March. Then council can begin working on legislation to put the policy into motion.

Legislation could range from creating new zoning districts and rules allowing greater density to providing more incentives for building on brownfields -- old industrial sites -- an example of infill development.

Coons said he's relying on public feedback to "help ensure that this plan reflects the collective voice of New Castle County residents and that the county will continue to feel like home."

Offsetting increased density

The last Comprehensive Plan update came in 2002, a process Baker says wasn't very dynamic and produced few substantive changes.

This revision was very different, he said, mostly because so much input was gathered up front.

But that doesn't mean everyone will agree with the outlined strategies.

"With this idea of greater density and mixed-use development in appropriate locations, there are going to be people who live next door to that who are going to have a negative reaction," Baker said.

For example, someone living in a suburban development of half-acre lots might not object to another one coming in on the adjoining tract. But they might not like it if that new subdivision featured a mix of big and tiny lots clustered on part of the land, along with a small retail "town center" and parkland.

The draft already has David Carter concerned about the area south of the canal, where the proposed centralized core follows the same geographic boundaries north of Middletown as the county's sewer plan introduced last spring.

Carter, who served on a subcommittee, is a member of the Southern New Castle County Alliance civic umbrella group and a longtime advocate of land preservation. He said he doesn't mind increased density in some areas as long as it is offset by lower density elsewhere.

"I fear that we will get a new urbanist approach for increased density [that] may result without any sincere effort to mandate the conservation side of this," he said. "If we are going to use 'smart growth,' use all aspects of it. Not just the development-friendly parts."

Many subcommittee members said Friday they were not prepared to comment because they were not aware of the plan's release and had not yet read it.

But several who did take a quick look at the draft said it appears to follow what was discussed during meetings.

"I'm very encouraged by what I'm seeing in it," said Lisa Goodman, a land-use attorney who represents several major developers. "It's addressing the concerns about sprawl in a way that is really productive and beneficial to both the citizens and our economic interests."

Developers have long grumbled about the county's Unified Development Code -- a body of law that governs land use -- because they say it restricts housing options and doesn't offer flexibility in building plans. Goodman, who worked on a subcommittee, said the plan could change all that if council follows up with a slew of new ordinances altering the land-use code.

If that doesn't happen, the Comprehensive Plan will be "just a pretty document," she said.

Mixed-use offers alternative

New Castle County now has an average building density of 3.3 dwellings per acre in the north, and 1.1 dwellings per acre in the south.

The draft plan calls for average per-acre density of six in the north, four in the core south of the canal, and 1 or less in southern areas outside the core. This core is bounded roughly by the canal, Del. 1 on the east, U.S. 301 on the west and Del. 299 on the south.

Beverley Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a nonprofit business group, said there was "broad consensus" during the subcommittee meetings about increasing density in exchange for open space.

She said higher density will translate into more affordable housing options, including apartments, town houses, and single-family homes under $250,000.

"Right now, we're pricing so many people out of the market," she said.

Weiner, who has lectured nationwide on mixed-use communities and infill, said he is excited about the plan.

An example of progressive development can be seen in Claymont, where a project is under way to replace run-down Brookview Townhomes with a village of single-family homes, apartments, shops and restaurants.

Instead of building the village on vacant land, developers Commonwealth Group and Setting Properties are building on 66 acres once considered an eyesore in the community.

Mixed-use projects won't work on every corner, but offer an alternative to cul-de-sac suburbanism and cramped, crowded city living. People can be less dependent on cars because they walk to and from their destinations, and communities are less insular because neighbors get to know each other.

"It's protective of our environment, good for our economy and good for our health," he said.


Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

WHAT'S NEXT

Dec. 12: Draft plan will be introduced to County Council.

Jan: 2: Planning Board will hold first hearing, second hearing to be scheduled.

March: 25: State-required deadline for adoption of final plan.


2007 COMPREHENSIVE PLAN OBJECTIVES

1. Put 60 percent of new development north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in suburban areas, redevelopment areas and incorporated areas.

2. Centralize 36 percent of new residential development south of the canal in the core area, where a new sewer system is already proposed.

3. Put 2 percent of new development in rural areas where significant infrastructure is not planned.

4. Put 2 percent of new development in preservation areas north and south of canal. Areas include Chateau Country in northern Brandywine Hundred and Blackbird Forest in the south.

5. Create greater densities and housing diversity through mixed-use centers and villages that are walkable.

6. Require the design of each mixed-use center to complement and enhance the surrounding community.

7. Encourage redevelopment and infill projects that enhance neighborhoods and restore older commercial property.

8. Reduce the number of vacant or under-maintained residential property by 15 percent.

9. Acquire permanent easements on 321 acres per year in rural and preservation areas through transfers-of-development rights.

10. Expand the use of Hometown Overlay zoning districts to preserve the unique character of certain communities.

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"There was such a lack of oversight from the previous council. The only people who questioned anything were Chris Coons and Bob Weiner."

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Formerly associated with Common Cause of Delaware

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