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4/5/2013
Gordon seeks to re-balance land-use reins; Weiner: "Previous administrations & their County Council allies stripped the UDC of many community protections." News Journal April 5, 2013

Council members are also divided on the proposed study. Councilman Bob Weiner said he looks forward to reverting to a balanced document. “Previous administrations and their allies on County Council stripped the UDC of many community protections,” he said.


STUDY TO REVAMP CODE Gordon seeks to re-balance land-use reins 

By Adam Taylor and Maureen Milford The News Journal April 5, 2013

New Castle County will hire a consultant to revamp how it handles land use because the current system is weighted too heavily in favor of developers, County Executive Tom Gordon said Thursday.

Gordon said a request for proposals was distributed this week seeking professionals who can help overhaul the county rules governing development. Bids for the study, which could cost up to $150,000, are due May 1.

“We want to get the best consultant in the country,” Gordon said. “The Unified Development Code has been systematically weakened since I left office to the point that developers rule the county and the community doesn’t have an equal seat at the table.”

The News Journal has written articles describing how a land-use attorney and a lobbyist hired by Stoltz Real Estate Partners used political access and influence to ease the way for the redevelopment of Barley Mill Plaza in Greenville.

The county’s Unified Development Code was created early in Gordon’s first stint as county executive, from 1997 to 2004. He was elected to the job again last November, making criticism of the proposed redevelopment of Barley Mill Plaza a central theme in his campaign.

The county’s request for proposal seeks a study that includes a review of how transparent the current process is, and whether citizens have enough input into the approval process. The controversial redevelopment section of the code, which allows studies of a development’s impact on traffic to be waived as an incentive for building on dilapidated sites instead of underveloped land will be reviewed as well.

The Barley Mill project was classified as “redevelopment” and no traffic study was conducted before the County Council’s 2011 vote to change the zoning for 37 of the property’s 91 acres to allow for eight pad sites for restaurants, stores and other commercial uses.

Critics say Barley Mill, a well-kept, functioning office complex, shouldn’t have qualified as a redevelopment project because it wasn’t an abandoned gasoline station or vacant shopping center, the type of sites the provision intended to improve. Following The News Journal’s article on Sunday, a group of citizens gave Gordon a wish list of reforms it would like to see included in the revamped UDC, some changes would prevent another project from proceeding down the same path as Barley Mill.

Gordon said the group’s document will be given to the consultant.

The group includes local blogger Nancy Willing, former county Planning Board Chairman Vic Singer, civic leaders Chuck Mulholland and Mark Blake, Planning Board member Sandra Anderson, and Save Our County member Tom Dewson.

Willing said the group met for four months to craft the document, in which the coalition wants the county to stop allowing the Council to vote on rezonings without completed traffic-study data.

“Traffic studies should be part of every major development. It’s as simple as that,” said Blake, who was among the county executive candidates last year.

The coalition also wants citizens to have the right to meet with Delaware’s Department of Transportation and county officials who determine which intersections are studied near large development plans.

Land-use attorney Larry Tarabicos advised the group on its wish list.

“I think many of the items on the list are reasonable,” he said. “It’s not too militant and doesn’t say ‘No’ to all new development.”

Land-use attorney Rich Abbott disagrees. He said the public already has enough opportunity to provide input and increasing it “will kill economic development and job growth.” “If the current system is too pro-development, this would just shift the pendulum to the other extreme and give the civic associations too much power,” he said. “That’s just as unfair and just as improper.” 

Paul Morrill Jr., executive director of the Committee of 100, a nonprofit focused on economic development, said his group will be involved to make sure changes don’t slow down an already lengthy process for developers.

“We hope that the process will be reset so there’s greater confidence on both sides,” he said. Mark Kleinschmidt, president of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, said the county’s development code needs to be reworked to help businesses increase their employment rolls.

Four years ago, the organization developed an economic growth ordinance for New Castle County that called for measures that would streamline the process for large and small employers seeking to expand and add jobs, or companies looking to renovate their properties, Kleinschmidt said. The chamber was not able to get a sponsor.

Council members are also divided on the proposed study. Councilman Bob Weiner said he looks forward to reverting to a balanced document. “Previous administrations and their allies on County Council stripped the UDC of many community protections,” he said. 

Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick said she was worried that proposed changes might violate constitutional law and developers private property rights. “It doesn’t matter what the public says,” she said. “We can’t stray beyond those parameters.” 

Councilman Penrose Hollins said whatever changes are made to the UDC that they won’t be the last. “Everybody in New Castle County considers themselves an expert in land use,” he said. “People who are looking for a perfect document are living in a dream world. Trust me, whatever gets done, someone will tell us a year from now that we’ll have to do it again.” 

Gordon said he knows the changes will not win him any popularity contests in the development community, but vows that the revamped UDC will be balanced. “The goal is to make the developers and the residents equally unhappy,” he said. 

Contact Adam Taylor at 324-2787 or ataylor@delawareonline.com. Contact Maureen Milford at 324-2881 or mmilford@delawareonline. com

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