Land development disputes aren’t unique to New Castle County, or even Delaware, and situations like the one surrounding the Felician Sisters’ 181-acre parcel on East Chestnut Hill Road are a tale as old as time. The community wants a public park and the property owners want fair compensation for their land, but the state doesn’t have enough money to buy it and the owners can’t afford to wait.
With their hands tied, the Sisters are considering selling their land to a residential developer, but it isn’t a done deal yet and the community isn’t giving up.
“I think we can do this,” said Frank Warnock, a Harmony Woods resident who is leading the fight against the development. “Every park in this county had a champion behind it that made it happen.”
Warnock said he’s feeling optimistic after receiving a letter from the Sisters on June 10, in which they said they are open to selling the land to the state or county for a park and have been discussing it with legislators and officials.
“Our position all along has been that we are open to any outcome that allows us to complete the apartment project within the required time frame and provides fair compensation for the remainder of the land,” the letter stated.
However, the situation is not that simple.
The Felician Sisters of North America own the land at 487 E. Chestnut Hill Road, which is just east of Newark. The site 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. Last year, 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.
Nearby residents are outraged at the thought of more homes, increased traffic and the negative impact on the environment, and some have publicly accused the Sisters of trying to make a quick buck.
However, State Rep. Ed Osienski, whose district encompasses the property, said the Sisters don’t really 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 Settling Properties. Selling to a developer would also help the Sisters fund future missions in the community, he said.
“I don’t think they realized when they came out with their first plan for the property that there was going to be that much pushback,” he said.
Osienski said the Sisters could try to rezone the property so the majority can remain open space, but that process typically takes 18 to 24 months at the county level, and the outcome is uncertain. If they wait, he said, they would be risking their tax credits.
According to Susan Eliason, director of housing development at DSHA, as soon as the Sisters got the credits, the clock started ticking on the apartments. The Sisters must have the 60 low-income apartments completely built and a certificate of occupancy issued by Dec. 31, 2017, or they lose their tax credits.
Osienski said he understands where the Sisters are coming from.
“They said, ‘We’re not willing to take that risk and take that gamble at this time,’” he said. “I mean, the deadline is fast approaching and they haven’t even got a shovel into the ground yet.”
Eliason said DSHA can give the Sisters an extension if it seems unlikely they will meet the deadline because of reasons out of their control.
“Such as the current land use process. That’s not necessarily something they can control,” she said. “They are operating within the system, and it has become very complicated.”
If they lose the credits, Eliason said, there is a way to reapply.
“They would have to make a brand new application and it is a competitive process, so if they completely lost the credits and wanted to come back, there would be no guarantee they would get those credits again,” she said.
The plan for the property has been modified at least three times since it was first presented to the public last summer. The changes have addressed concerns expressed by neighbors, elected officials and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control regarding the negative impact on the wetlands surrounding the proposed development.
The original plan would have encroached upon the 450-foot wooded buffer necessary for insects and amphibians to breed in Ogletown Pond, so Settling redesigned the subdivision to address those environmental issues and shifted the lots previously around the pond to the bottom left of the development. The developers also agreed to leave 80 precent of the property — approximately 145 acres — as open space.
In addition, connecting roads with neighboring Breezewood and Todd Estates were eliminated at the request of neighbors.
Warnock, who co-founded a group called “Save Ogletown Pond” with Todd Estates resident Angela Connolly to try to protect the woodlands, said the changes to the proposed development are great, but they don’t compete with the best-case-scenario of a public park.
They wrote the Sisters a letter in May in the hopes that both parties could get on the same page.
“We were getting mixed signals from different people about their position,” Warnock said. “We didn’t really know if they were open to a dialogue and open to the idea of spinning off the majority of the property that could be put up for sale and could be bought by the county and the state.”
On June 10, they received a response from Sister Mary Christopher Moore who assured them “our desired outcomes are not terribly far apart.” In the letter, Moore explained how the Sisters’ hands are tied due to the approaching deadline, the zoning issues and their desire to fulfill their mission, but they want what is best for the Ogletown community.
Warnock said the letter is “strong evidence” that the Sisters are willing to explore other options and possibly abandon the Settling development plan.
“The planets are aligning, I like to say. We just need a few more good things to happen and we’ll just go from there,” he said.
State Sen. Bryan Townsend said there is currently no money in the state budget to buy the land, but he and Osienski requested DNREC coordinate an appraisal just to see how much it would cost.
“Ed and I are pushing hard for it, but it was a very tough budget year,” he said.
According to New Castle County Councilwoman Lisa Diller, there is money in the county budget, but not enough to cover the entire purchase, so the state would need to pitch in.
“We can’t do it alone,” she said.
In the meantime, Townsend said, the Sisters aren’t slowing down. They can’t wait while the state and county scrape together the funds, or they risk not fulfilling their mission.
“This is an example of how stuff costs money,” Townsend said. “If the community wants to conserve open space when a developer wants to develop it, then they need to come together.”