The New Castle County Historic Review Board this week reluctantly signed off on a developer’s proposal to build a large logistics hub on land that was part of the Cooch’s Bridge Battlefield.
“It’s a sad day to see that our history – the American Indian history, the American battlefield history – is going to be wiped out by three large manufacturing buildings,” board member Karen Anderson said. “It's heartbreaking that we do not value history. It's heartbreaking to see that someone would come in and take very little care in regards to the really strong historical aspects of the particular property.”
Ultimately, though, the board unanimously approved the proposal, explaining its hands were tied by the board’s 2008 decision to approve an earlier version of the project.
“This isn't a do over of 2008. And I understand that might be unfortunate to the board and might be unfortunate to the public, but, I'm not trying to flip, that ship has sailed,” Colleen Norris, an attorney for the county, advised the board.
Board member John Brook added that the board must take property rights into consideration.
“It might make a really nice little historic park,” John said. “But for it to become a historic park, somebody has to own the land that wants to make a park, and that would be the state or the county or the federal government or a battlefield organization. They would have to buy the land and make it into a park. Without that happening, I think the owners have the right to do what they’re doing.”
The plan, which now moves on through the county’s development process, calls for building three logistics warehouses totaling just over 1 million square feet on three parcels near the southeast corner of South College Avenue and Old Cooch’s Bridge Road, just south of Glasgow High School. The warehouses will surround Sunset Lake on three sides.
The lake itself is owned by the state and the Newark Anglers Association, but much of the land around it is owned by W.L. Gore & Associates. Gore is under contract to sell the 149 acres to D2 Pencader LLC, which is proposing the warehouses, according to Michael Hoffman, a lawyer for the Philadelphia-based developer. The land is properly zoned for the project, though it is currently used for farming.
D2 is in line for a $4.5 million grant from the state’s Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund, which will be used to improve roads in the area. The warehouses are expected to generate 182 jobs, according to information provided by the TIIF.
The project has been in the works since 2005, when Gore filed an initial plan. In 2009, the county approved 1.6 million square feet of warehouse and office space, but Gore’s plan to build a headquarters there never came to fruition.
D2 is now seeking to redesign the project – actually making it a bit smaller – and therefore is required to go through the development approval process again. Hoffman noted that the original project “remains very much active and valid today,” and his client’s ability to develop the land is not in question.
“We understand the interest of the history in this region, and the applicant is willing to be a participant in that,” he added.
The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, which took place Sept. 3, 1777, was the only Revolutionary War battle fought in Delaware.
The state has preserved much of the battlefield site closest to Cooch’s Bridge, including the Cooch House – which British general Charles Cornwallis famously occupied for five days – and the nearby Dayett Mills property, which is now home to the Pencader Heritage Museum.
However, historians believe the battle covered approximately six square miles, extending all the way south to Glasgow. Most of that land has been heavily developed over the past decades, including an industrial park next to where the warehouses are planned.
Prior to the 2009 approval, archaeological investigation found artifacts from the battle as well as two significant sites from the Native Americans who once inhabited the Iron Hill area, including remnants of a village dating back 12,000 years. The two archaeological sites are noted on the developer’s plan and will not be disturbed.
However, several historians who expressed concerns about the project last month argued that further study is needed to make sure any remaining artifacts on the site are discovered and preserved.
“You can metal detect multiple times over the same space and continue to recover information,” said Wade Catts, a Newark historian who has done extensive research on the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. “This is essentially the last opportunity we as a community would have to recover this information from Delaware’s largest land battle during the American Revolution.”
Keith Jackson, president of the Pencader Heritage Area Association, concurred.
“We just want to make it abundantly clear that if at all possible, the archaeologists need to be given all the resources and time that they need to really go over this, not just for the Native American tribe settlements that were there but also because of the battle artifacts. Some were found, but I firmly believe you’re going to find a lot more.”
He noted that the land in question played a key role in the battle.
“This is more significant than I think most people realize,” Jackson said. “It was actually one of the larger areas where the battle was concentrated, besides down at the bridge.”
Vince Watchorn, president of the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, urged the developer to prepare for the possibility of finding a burial ground. The roughly two-dozen Colonial soldiers killed at Cooch’s Bridge are believed to be buried somewhere on the battlefield.
“We remain hopeful that someday we will find the battle burial ground. We know that it’s there somewhere, but we don’t know where,” Watchorn said. “We want to make sure that the process is careful to include a burial protocol in case by some chance, this is where that burial ground is located.”
Hoffman said last month that the developer is willing to continue discussing the project with historians and other stakeholders.
“What the applicant has done is maintained the dialogue and is committed to continuing that dialogue and looks forward to engaging in continued conversations,” he said.