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6/30/2010
Stoltz' Greenville plans advanced with last minute assistance from State Dept of Transportation - The News Journal

Developer survives legal snarl 2 a.m. accord keeps Greenville plans on track
BY CHAD LIVENGOOD • THE NEWS JOURNAL • JUNE 30, 2010

A Pennsylvania-based developer's path to approval for two large commercial properties in New Castle County was nearly derailed last week during a middle-of-the-night hearing in Legislative Hall.

Two lawmakers had proposed stricter requirements before the state could sign off on traffic-impact studies, potentially adding millions to the developer's plans at Greenville Center and Barley Mill Plaza, a prime piece of former DuPont property.

Alerted to the legislative maneuver, the Delaware Department of Transportation forged a compromise about 2 a.m. Friday, when most political observers were sound asleep.

DelDOT convinced lawmakers to agree to language in the agency's funding bill that's less restrictive from their original proposal, but may give a citizens group in New Castle County's chateau country a legal foothold to challenge the projects in court.

"Why should the taxpayers have to subsidize this out-of-state real-estate development trust in putting in its project?" said Richard Beck, a land-use attorney with Citizens for Responsible Growth, a civic group fighting both developments.

One of the proposed hurdles would have mandated a maximum level of acceptable traffic congestion at Barley Mill Plaza, potentially putting the developer, Stoltz Real Estate Partners, on the hook for millions in improvements to nearby roads, bridges and intersections.

DelDOT argued that the proposal was premature because Stoltz has not yet submitted final plans for converting the 1 million-square-foot DuPont Co. office park, now leased from Stoltz by DuPont, into 2.8 million square feet of commercial, hotel, residential and office space.

Another hurdle would have required DelDOT to solicit comments from Greenville residents about the office, retail and residential space Stoltz wants to integrate with a 12-story tower along Del. 52.

Sen. Michael Katz, who lives in nearby Centreville, and Sen. Harris McDowell III sought to add epilogue language to the state's bond bill that would have required DelDOT to gather citizen input on the traffic impact of the two developments.

Katz said the compromised language still sends a message to DelDOT, while giving the citizens group a leg to stand on in court, if need be.

"We're trying to make sure that the people in the area would have an early say," said McDowell, D-Wilmington North. "The way this system is set up kind of favors developers."

Brett Taylor, director of policy and communications for DelDOT, said it's not his agency's "obligation" to gather input about a project from citizens; that's the job of the New Castle County Land Use Department, which has received numerous letters of opposition to both projects.

Katz's and McDowell's epilogue language would have "prohibited" DelDOT from authorizing Stoltz's plans without ensuring the Greenville Center project wouldn't "create traffic safety hazards" on Del. 52 and Buck Road. Lawmakers also wanted assurances from DelDOT that the Barley Mill Plaza expansion project won't create more congestion along Del. 141 and Lancaster Pike.

DelDOT got lawmakers to agree to compromise language -- that it wrote -- that said the department "is requested to refrain" from authorizing Stoltz to go forward without meeting certain requirements.

The keyword soon to become law is "requested."

Taylor said the compromise language requesting that DelDOT "refrain" from issuing permits to Stoltz is nothing different from the agency's standard operating procedure for large developments.

"DelDOT's process is not to establish a level of service, it's to certify the improvements a developer is going to make," Taylor said. "There's still a lot of data that still has to be accumulated before we even suggest what is necessary for the intersection and entrances in the area."

Proponents of the epilogue language said DelDOT can't determine what road improvements Stoltz would have to make without establishing an acceptable level of congestion.

By not establishing a maximum congestion level, Stoltz could submit plans that would not require the developer to pay for road improvements, Beck said.

DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks spoke against Katz's and McDowell's original language at an overnight legislative hearing early Friday.

McDowell said a public comment period would have given residents who live near the developments another chance to voice their concerns or support.

"Otherwise it comes, the t's get crossed the i's get dotted and here come the bulldozers," said McDowell, who sought the amendment on Katz's behalf because he serves on the Bond Bill Committee.

McDowell warned against DelDOT ignoring the law and green-lighting the Stoltz projects without addressing traffic safety and other issues.

"They're going to have some heavy 'splainin to do -- as Ricky Ricardo would say -- if they don't refrain," McDowell said.

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