Could DuPont Country Club be developed? - News Journal
“The DuPont Country Club is part of the charm of the area that we, as the current generation, have a duty to protect for future generations," said New Castle Councilman Robert Weiner, whose district includes all of Brandywine Valley in New Castle County.
"It was the du Pont family's wealth that protected us for 200 years and it falls on us, the current stewards of the scenic and historic Brandywine Valley, to protect and preserve these landscapes and view sheds. Once they're lost, they're lost forever."
Could DuPont Country Club be developed?
Maureen Milford, The News Journal 6:32 p.m. EDT May 8, 2015
Stephen Mottola had set a price ceiling of about $1 million when he decided to move from Wilmington to the suburbs in 2013.
But instead of choosing exclusive Chateau Country, Mottola found an early 1960s brick Colonial north of the city for $562,000. He then sank another $600,000 into a whole-house renovation. Mottola based his investment decision, in part, on the fact the house has a sweeping vista of the rolling and wooded DuPont Country Club whose land was restricted by deed provisions.
Now, he – along with other residents of Brandywine Hundred – have gotten a nasty surprise: Woodlawn Trustees Inc., a Wilmington company whose mission includes land preservation along The Brandywine, quietly released deed restrictions in 2008 that once prohibited development on roughly half of the 525-acre club property, a public records search by The News Journal shows.
Woodlawn, which sold the land to the DuPont Co. that became the country club's DuPont and Montchanin golf courses, also eliminated a provision that would have allowed Woodlawn to repurchase at a fraction of its current market value the approximately 258-acre parcel bordered by Rockland Road, Country Club Drive and Black Gates Road.
A change in country club ownership could permanently alter the character of one the Brandywine Valley's most peaceful landscapes, often referred to as the gateway to Delaware's Chateau Country. Under current zoning, the two golf courses could be carved up as single-family housing. Another golf course across Del. 141 from the Nemours mansion and gardens and the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children could be developed as offices.
These revelations inject a new and troubling element into rumblings that DuPont might sell the 95-year-old club that has served as a greenbelt in the heart of Brandywine Hundred. Robert Valihura, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, an umbrella group, called it "the most important issue in Brandywine Hundred today."
Concern has been mounting since September when activist investor Nelson Peltz, whose Trian Fund Management is waging a proxy contest for seats on the DuPont board, took aim at the country club and Hotel du Pont as some of the reasons DuPont's conglomerate structure "is destroying shareholder value."
Trian listed the club, the hotel and the theater as partly responsible for an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion in excess corporate costs. While DuPont's CEO Ellen Kullman has said they are not a burden on the company, the company has said it is open to divesting the country club and Hotel du Pont if "appropriate value can be received for shareholders."
While there's been no indication of an impending transfer of the club, neighbors fear that the lifting of the restrictions opens the door for the club land to go the way of the once corporate-owned Hercules Country Club. The rolling Hercules land off Lancaster Pike was carved up for development.
"Once Woodlawn took restrictions off they opened Pandora's Box to any type of development that could get the approval of the appropriate government authorities," Valihura said.
To Dave English, the former general manager of DuPont Country Club who retired in 2000 and continued to believe the land was protected, any development proposal would likely be met with precedent-setting opposition.
"It would absolutely turn Wilmington upside-down," he said.
Now, the community is mobilizing to have a role in whatever happens to the land.
"It's part of the charm of the area that we, as the current generation, have a duty to protect for future generations," said New Castle Councilman Robert Weiner, whose district includes all of Brandywine Valley in New Castle County.
"It was the du Pont family's wealth that protected us for 200 years and it falls on us, the current stewards of the scenic and historic Brandywine Valley, to protect and preserve these landscapes and viewsheds. Once they're lost, they're lost forever."
Neighbors get a shock
Duncan Patterson of Rockland, whose lands border the Montchanin Course, was near speechless to learn that Woodlawn has released DuPont from the deed restriction.
"That is amazing," Patterson said. "We've been sitting back somewhat smugly. We thought it was deed restricted."
He's not alone in being blindsided.
The Woodbrook homeowners association, which represents the community surrounding the DuPont and Montchanin courses, was unaware of the change. Woodbrook was developed by Woodlawn in the 1960s and original homeowners bought their land from the company. That also holds true for other Woodlawn developments, including Sharpley.
Like Mottola, many past and current Woodbrook residents built or bought homes in the community because of the understanding the country club could not be developed.
Based on a 1932 map and public records, land that comprises Woodbrook and the country club's DuPont and Montchanin courses had been owned by Woodlawn Trustees since 1919. Before that, it had been owned by Woodlawn Co.
At that time, the country club, founded in 1920 near DuPont's 1802 gunpowder yard, was located near the Brandywine Creek. The original club was built on land that included what is now part of the Experimental Station.
But as DuPont grew, the club moved north toward Rockland Road. Beginning in 1946, Woodlawn sold a handful of parcels to DuPont. A Georgian-style clubhouse and golf course, designed by Alfred Tull, were dedicated in May 1949.
Based on public records, Woodlawn, created in 1901 by Quaker philanthropist William P. Bancroft, had assembled the land sold to DuPont decades before. Bancroft, who believed that Wilmington's growth would move north, began buying land in 1906 along the creek with the idea of keeping it open for a "Wilmington of hundreds of thousands of people."
"My thought is that the hills along the creek, some of the valleys running up from the creek, and a few of the finest viewpoints on the hills should be owned by the city and kept open for the public: and that the land further back from the creek, being largely in one ownership, may be laid out with roads on good grades and leading to the good building sites, which will have easy communication with Wilmington, so as to make a very attractive and desirable resident district," Bancroft said at a meeting of the West Brandywine Grange in 1909.
Woodbrook residents concerned over potential country club development
The company is credited with preserving more than 1,000 acres along the creek.
Because Woodlawn has no income except through its real-estate holdings, the corporation developed parcels to further its preservation goals. Some of the residential communities Woodlawn developed along the west side of U.S. 202 include Alapocas, Woodbook, Sharpley, Edenridge and Tavistock. Land also was made available to community organizations, schools and churches. It has also been involved in commercial development along U.S. 202.
In keeping with Bancroft's intended mission, Woodlawn imposed deed restrictions on the sale of land to DuPont, including a provision that the land "be used only as a country club for social and recreational purposes, with the exception of any form of gun or rifle club, and shall not be used for industrial, commercial or manufacturing purposes," except as related to operation of the club.
Another condition specified that if the lands ceased to be used as a club for social and recreational purposes, DuPont would notify Woodlawn and Woodlawn would have the option to repurchase the land. If Woodlawn decided not to repurchase the property, the land could be used only for residential or park purposes approved by Woodlawn.
Those disappeared quietly in 2008 when Woodlawn released DuPont from the restrictions.
When asked about the deed restriction late last year, Vernon Green, chief operating officer of Woodlawn Trustees, said the conditions had been lifted years ago.
But several weeks ago, when asked about the deed restrictions, he said to the best of his knowledge Woodlawn had never owned the DuPont Country Club land but another small piece with a historic house. He said the company would not be interested in purchasing the property for preservation as part of its mission.
Later, when The News Journal informed Green that a 1932 map showed Woodlawn owning the land, Green indicated he was unaware of it. Then, when told public documents showed that Woodlawn released the restrictions, Green said he would have to look into it. Green said that despite the fact he signed the release documents as a witness and notarized it.
He said he could not comment on whether the action conflicted with Woodlawn's mission.
Since then, Green has not returned repeated phone calls or emails.
DuPont declined to comment on whether Woodlawn received any consideration for lifting the provisions.
"There had to be a quid pro quo," Weiner said. "I've inquired routinely [of Woodlawn] and have been unable to get answers."
Neighbors are vigilant
Even without the restrictions, any development proposal will face an uphill fight.
Community groups in New Castle County are battle-tested after attempts to build Barley Mill Plaza, DuPont's former office park in Greenville. DuPont sold the roughly 100-acre parcel on Del. 141 in 2007 and it has yet to see a shovel, despite efforts beginning in 2008 to develop it by the Stoltz real estate organization. It led to a protracted lawsuit won by the community.
"The DuPont Country Club would be Barley Mill tenfold," said English, the former country club manager.
There continues to be restrictions on two of the club's lands – including the Georgian mansion and grounds DuPont purchased in 1990 for a banquet and conference center. Today, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont III and the childhood home of former Gov. Pete du Pont, is called Brantwyn. The deed between the former du Pont estate and the company calls for nearly 15 acres of the approximately 58.6-acre property to "forever be preserved in its natural state" with no development, clearing, filling or other alterations."
The remaining 43.6 acres are restricted to use as a conference or education center, as part of the golf course or for single-family residential use – provided the land is not part of more than three residential lots, the deed says.
Zoning on the former Woodlawn land near Brantwyn is suburban estate, which means there is a two-acre minimum and is not to be served by county sewer.
The approximately 182.8-acre Nemours Course, which is south of Rockland Road and bordered by The Brandywine and Del. 141, has a conservation easement on approximately 79 acres of the parcel. The easement was established in order for DuPont to increase the developmental potential of the company's nearby Experimental Station, according to county land records. The Nemours Course also contains wetland and mature forests, creating environmental protections against development.
Any development proposal would be constrained by the county's Unified Development Code in how much could be built because of environmental features, such as wetland, mature forests and steep slopes, Weiner said.
While the Nemours Course is zoned office regional, with a right to build a 50-foot building [about four stories], it faces obstacles with traffic, said Kenneth Bieri, planning manager with New Castle County.
"Traffic constraints are always a relevant point of analysis" in approving any project, Weiner said.
Near the course, along Del. 141, is the entrance to the DuPont Experimental Station and the two-lane Tyler McConnell Bridge. The area already becomes a bottleneck during peak drive times.
The feeder roads into Del. 141 are all two-lane country roads, including Rockland Road, Black Gates Road and Country Club Drive. Alapocas Drive, which intersects with Del. 141 at the Nemours Course is also a two-lane country road, along with Rising Sun Lane.
Remaining a club
As he prepared for a round of golf on a recent sunny morning, club member James Rim admitted he was a "little apprehensive" about the rumblings that DuPont could spin off the country club.
"I'd like it to stay a country club," said Rim, who does not work for DuPont.
But even if it were to be sold to another country club operator, it would not necessarily end the uncertainty for the community. Country clubs have struggled in recent years as Americans say goodbye to their memberships in response to economic conditions, increased competition for their leisure time and changes in family lifestyles.
Membership in the DuPont Country Club once stood at 9,360 in the 1980s. Today, there are 2,100 members.
William McMahon, chairman of McMahon Group, a private club consultant based in St. Louis, said if DuPont pulls out the land will likely be developed. The number of private clubs nationally has dropped from about 5,000 in 1999 to about 3,850 today, he said.
"Without the corporate support, the area won't support it as a true private club," McMahon said.
With the current battles the DuPont Company are facing, Residents living around the DuPont Country Club are curious of the club's future.
The DuPont Country Club, which historically had been restricted to employees and retirees, is among the last corporate-owned clubs of that scale in the country, although companies in Great Britain continue to own clubs, McMahon said.
"By and large, it's a bygone era," he said.
For Jack Quinn, who once worked for DuPont and is now a lawyer in Wilmington, another club operator could change the terms of membership.
"I have a little concern, imagining the dues increasing," he said.
But, for now, he's taking a "wait and see" attitude, knowing that no transfer could not happen overnight.
Disappointment with Woodlawn
For Mary Beth Adelman, who lives in the nearby Carillon Crossing community off Rockland Road, echoed the sentiment of many when she learned Woodlawn released DuPont from the deed restrictions.
"It's disappointing," she said. "They always had the reputation of being above board and were held in high esteem."
Chuck Landry, who headed CCOBH during the period when the deed restrictions were released, said Woodlawn Trustees never formally approached the group. He had also been active in the Sharpley Civic Association and it was not notified.
Valihura said the community would have liked Woodlawn to inform them of the change as a neighborly gesture.
"Anybody who bought in [the neighboring communities] in the last five years would have liked to know. The community could have approached Woodlawn and worked with them on alternatives to removing those restrictions," he said. "We could also have been working with the General Assembly and county on how to best protect this asset. Now, we're under the gun."
To Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, Woodlawn's quiet lifting of the deed restrictions "poisons the well on discussions about future uses of the property."
"It's not the first time I'm surprised or disappointed with Woodlawn," Lavelle said. "They come to the community for help and support around their projects. But then you find out that this happens. They've tried to develop a positive relationship with the community to benefit themselves, and that's OK. But is it just a one-way conversation? Apparently, it is."
County executive Tom Gordon said he was "shocked" by Woodlawn's actions and vowed that the county land-use department would not take any "shortcuts" if a development was proposed.
Councilman David Tackett, who represents the Newark, Glasgow and Bear areas, has introduced a bill that would create a new zoning classification for open space.
"What it would do is capture all the open space, public and private, in New Castle County, and put it into this one zoning classification that will clearly define what you can and can't do," Tackett said.
The classification would help the neighbors of DuPont Country Club, he said
"This will take away the nightmares and fears of what potentially could go in open space," Tackett said.
Landry, who is currently on the board of directors of CCOBH, said the organization wants to play a constructive role in any transition of the club.
"Before a deal is cut we want to sit down and try to make sure that DuPont understands our concerns and what we would like to avoid," Landry said. "We've got to rely on diplomacy."
Contact Maureen Milford at (302) 324-2881 (302) 324-2881 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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