Push for county park on former orphanage site remains strong

Residents Frank Warnock and Angela Connolly, co-founders of Save The Orphanage Property, urge New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer to turn the Felician Sisters’ property on East Chestnut Hill Road into a county park.

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer says he is “committed” to finding the funding the county needs to buy the Felician Sisters’ 181-acre parcel on East Chestnut Hill Road and turn it into a public park.

“Not only am I committed to it, I’ve already made numerous phone calls about it,” Meyer said Tuesday during a Civic League for New Castle County meeting.

Several members of the group Save The Orphanage Property (STOP) – formerly Save Ogletown Pond – turned out to the meeting at the Christiana Presbyterian Church on North Old Baltimore Pike to protest the controversial housing development planned for the land at 487 E. Chestnut Hill Road, which is just east of Newark, and press Meyer for updates on the community’s desire for a park there instead.

Angela Connolly, a Todd Estates resident and STOP co-founder, said that over the past two years she has spent fighting the project, she has often heard the words “last chance.”

“For us, those two words mean the last chance for us in Ogletown to have a regional park that all of us can enjoy,” she said, encouraging Meyer to hear them out. “If this gets away, it will not come back to us again. Once land is gone, it is gone forever.”

An avid biker and hiker, Meyer sympathized with Connolly’s concerns.

“I hear what you’re saying and in my heart, I agree with what you’re saying,” he said, but added that it’s not that simple.

Meyer said it comes down to a resource question: what money do we have in the budget and what is the will of the people and legislators? He said there are competing priorities all across the county, which makes it hard for officials to agree to dedicate funding toward one specific project.

“I want more parkland where I live, and I hear that in the county almost everywhere I go,” Meyer said.

The Felician Sisters of North America own the site, which is home to the shuttered Our Lady of Grace orphanage and an expansive open space that extends behind the Todd Estates neighborhood.

The Sisters have been attempting to develop the property into low-income housing for several years as part of their mission, but their progress depended upon the availability of federal tax credits. In 2015, they received credits from the Delaware State Housing Authority and released a plan for 60 low-income apartments. The housing was presented as part of a larger project by Joe Setting and Greg Lingo of Montchanin-based Setting Properties Inc., who are planning to build hundreds of townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes costing between $200,000 and $300,000 on the rest of the property.

Many nearby residents are outraged at the thought of more homes, increased traffic and the negative impact on the environment and have rallied against the project since it was first introduced, begging county officials and state legislators to buy the land and stop the development.

The county needs to cough up $6 million to acquire it, but Meyer said it puts too much pressure on the county to foot the entire bill itself. The more private sources that contribute to the cause, the better, he said, adding that a few groups have already come forward.

In January, the state’s Open Space Council dedicated $250,000 to a potential purchase, and Meyer said he and State Sen. Bryan Townsend recently connected with someone who identified $1.5 to $2 million in private sources, although he did not identify the organizations.

The expectation is that a down payment could be made for the property – derailing the developer’s plan – and the state and county would then come up with the additional $4 million to pay the Sisters back over time.

The Sisters have said they are open to selling the land to the state or county, but right now they don’t have much of a choice if they want to fulfill their mission. The current zoning does not allow the apartments as a standalone project, only as part of a larger residential development, which is likely why the Sisters sought out Setting Properties. Selling to a developer would also help the Sisters fund future missions in the community.

The Sisters expect to finalize the approvals for the development plan in the next few months and, according to Townsend, the DSHA recently granted the Sisters an extension that gives them at least two more years to build the low-income apartments before they risk losing their tax credits.

The extension means more time for the Sisters, but not necessarily the residents and legislators who want to see the rest of the property become a park. Townsend said the county has to be willing to enter into negotiations with the Sisters in order to nail down a repayment plan, but the money in the county budget is too uncertain at the moment and the deadline for the June 30 budget is swiftly approaching.

It’s difficult to set money aside for the park if there is no plan, and it’s also difficult to come up with a plan if there is no money.

“It’s a very classic chicken-and-the-egg situation,” Townsend said.

Townsend said there are several “serious steps” the county needs to take over the next year in order to make this park a reality, starting with rezoning the property so the Sisters can build the affordable housing without the rest of the project. The next step would be to allocate the money toward a repayment plan, but Townsend isn’t sure county and state officials are even talking about that yet.

“There’s no single hero. No one is going to drop $6 million out of the sky,” Townsend said. “It has to be a team effort lead by the county. That’s the only way this works.”

“In theory, the funding could come together next year, but are the Sisters willing to wait that long?” he added.

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