Friday, January 19, 2018

Meyer, Ogletown-S. Newark Legislators are a disgrace to democracy


By Frank Warnock and Angela Connolly -- 
 A 2.5 year exemplary citizen advocacy campaign to save the Orphanage Property (OP) in Ogletown in its natural state, and to truly preserve it as a future regional park has finally ended. Multiple windows of opportunity for buyout were -- time and time again -- refused action by our legislators on both the County and the State level.

It is estimated that, judging by a 1,100+ following on social media alone, Save The Orphanage Property (STOP) had many thousands of area residents that were backing the campaign. No fundraising took place, and no memberships were offered; it would be the truest of grassroots efforts. Despite such widespread and enthusiastic support, no amount of action or visibility on the part of residents and citizens counted toward democracy -- and in light of a broken Unified Development Code, the rule of law. It has become painfully clear that, from STOP's earliest beginnings, fate was already decided. Councilwoman Lisa Diller, State Rep Edward Osienski, and Senator Bryan Townsend were well aware that development of the OP was coming as early as 2013, and kept it a secret from their Constituents until it was too late.

Shortly after the CHP was accidentally leaked, Councilwoman Diller was forced to call an emergency public hearing. At least one is required by County law for any major plan. In July 2015, hundreds of area residents came out to Holy Family Church and were shocked and dismayed to find out that the CHP was already well advanced and would be difficult to stop. Had she, along with our two State Legislators brought this to the public two years earlier, it could have been an entirely different outcome. A way could have been found to provide the Felician Sisters with their 60 units of affordable housing, which the STOP Campaign supported, while preserving the bulk as a regional park. The Nuns at that time had even favored such an outcome over the development.

Immediately after this first and only hearing, "Save Ogletown Pond" (SOP) grew exponentially, with the immediate goal of steering any development away from the "Ogletown Pond" critical habitat area. The developers did comply and adjusted their plan to the west and closer to Breezewood. But the larger goal did not stop there; it was soon obvious that everyone wanted the entire parcel for dedicated open space, wetland protection, wildlife buffer, and ultimately, a regional park. The Ogletown-S. Newark area is devoid of such a facility, that could be walkable, jogable, or bikeable from their homes. Those closest -- Glasgow and Pike Creek -- are a 20+ min drive for most, which contradicts Gov Minner's "Livable Delaware" and DNREC's "Trails and Pathways" initiatives (among others). The Orphanage Property represented the last potential green space that can be designated, and in the process, it would prevent some of the horrific damage being done to Delaware's bio-diversity and wildlife habitat according to a recent report authored by Senator Stephanie Hansen. That chance is now gone due to political apathy and indifference, and a shunning of "We The People".

County Executive Matt Meyer
The amount of dishonesty and half-truths by these legislators was staggering. They did a superb job at keeping advocates in flux, confusion, in darkness and not knowing, and having to guess who was on the side of truth. Councilwoman Lisa Diller insisted all along that the property was not for sale, and for all intents and purposes, she was "done and finished" with any notion of a buyout. She made that clear in meetings, and in writing, in one of her e-newsletters. That simply wasn't true, because as seen, it was later sold to developers. The onus then shifted to NCC Exec Matt Meyer, who failed to produce a buyout proposal that was acceptable to the Felician Sisters. During that time, Senator Bryan Townsend repeatedly said that Mr Meyer threw away several windows of opportunity.

Because it was Mr Meyer who was meeting with the Sisters, not the State legislators -- who were either prohibited or unwilling to participate -- advocates had no conduit and thus no way to know if progress was being made. In a leap of faith, they chose to put their complete trust in Senator Townsend, who claimed to be in regular touch with the Sisters and thus, receiving their updates on negotiations. The news was not good; Mr Meyer, according to Townsend, had bungled repeat buyout offers by not meeting several basic demands that he and the Sisters had verbally agreed upon. He simply wasn't "going after it" with the heart of someone who really wanted a park for Ogletown. He had an excellent deal in the palm of his hand, with a huge multiplier in State money, but simply wouldn't close it. This was the news coming back to advocates with repeated calls and emails from the State Legislators, mainly Senator Townsend.

In the time that ensued, the announcement came through that the Sisters sold the OP to Robert Sipple, a major land developer. With Ryan Homes, he is currently heading up the controversial LaGrange development along Rt.40 in Glasgow, where they are fighting to develop a "permanently" protected historical area (more on that in future posts). Advocates re-organized and thought it best to contact Mr Sipple directly, and ask for a meeting to find if there was a price that he and his people would accept in a buyout proposal. A non-STOP advocate (who chose not to be identified) made contact with Mr Sipple through Joseph Setting of Setting Properties. Mr Setting is the developer that was cited by the Wilmington News Journal as the developer of the OP just shortly after the CHP was leaked and then announced in 2015. He continues in one, possibly two LLCs that are associated with the development of the OP, which runs contradictory to his claim of being disassociated.

The meeting took place around lunch, with Senator Townsend in attendance. Apparently, Rep Osienski was unable to attend for medical purposes. Or so he says. There was no agenda, but Mr Sipple quoted a figure of $7.14M that he thought would be an acceptable buyout cost, but that he would need to meet with his partners to discuss. Little is known about the meeting beyond that, but Sen. Townsend insisted that his repeated calls and emails to Mr Sipple since then had gone unanswered. It is his opinion that Mr Sipple's lack of confidence in NCC is what has him now moving forward with the CHP as opposed to any thoughts of selling.

Representative John Kowalko (Newark)
As it turned out, Advocates did learn that Exec Meyer had agreed to bring 1/2 the buyout price before NCC for a vote, which if successful, would make the OP a State and County purchase as originally hoped for. Unfortunately, Mr Meyer also said that he wanted no part in negotiations with Mr Sipple or any logistics in a buyout. That alone ended any notion of County involvement, financially or otherwise, because any deal on this scale must come at the County level.

Complete silence from all parties would follow, with the exception of one instant message from Exec Meyer on the evening of Jan 17 putting his $3+M offer in writing. His language suggested he was naive about the current situation, and questioned if the Bond Bill funding had come through on the State side. Nothing he said indicated he had spoken with Senator Townsend or Rep Osienski. He further suggested that it was their failure to progress that held things up. Meanwhile, Townsend replied "I have seen email communication from Meyer that is not at all a rosy picture of support for [STOP]. Meyer (of course) says he supports [the buyout], but then goes on to say how the County can't afford to participate."

As of 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, 2018, surveyors set up camp on the OP. They are beginning the drainage and utility mapping for 270 homes that are now sure to come. The CHP is anything but a "preserve", but in a complete oxymoron, that is what they call it. This super high density development will completely fill in the region's last remaining wildlands and open space that is suitable for a deserved regional park. Construction will soon be underway, with no apparent way to stop it.

We will now summarize some key aspects of the STOP campaign, and why things turned out the way they did.
Councilwoman Lisa Diller
  • Councilwoman Lisa Diller declared herself detached and unwilling to champion the cause, insisting all along that the land was not for sale. Executive Meyer was not a sincere proponent of STOP either, and kept finding reasons not to commit. Was it because he accepted maximum campaign contributions from numerous developers in Delaware? He also appointed Joseph Setting, a campaign donor and developer of the OP (according to the Wilmington News Journal), to serve as Chair of his Parks Transition Team. Mr Setting's role was a direct conflict of interest, giving him significant influence and input over where NCC parkland was prioritized. He remains vested in the property today via one, possibly two LLCs.
  • The Dept of Land Use (DLU) will be issuing illegal building permits for 269 apartments, townhomes and large-scale homes as part of the CHP, probably by Spring 2018. According to the Unified Development Code (UDC), if a project fails its Traffic Impact Study (TIS), it is not permitted without traffic level of service (LOS) improvements funded by the developer.   
  • In the case of the CHP, DelDOT expanded the scope of the TIS by six intersections, two of them in grade "E" failure mode based on 2010 study data. Today they are likely "F". Ironically, the author wrote that these were to be omitted, however, UDC section 40.11.124 states the contrary – that DelDOT's recommendations are equally relevant. Therefore, issuing building permits is illegal. Repeated attempts to contact Mr Richard Hall, Manager at the DLU, have been made, and are still being made, to no avail. Advocates need to see in writing where in County law that the DLU or anyone else has the authority to override TIS regulations when the transportation system is already overwhelmed, or otherwise exercise discretion over how it's carried out. Mr Hall, at rehall@nccde.org, refuses to reply.
    Representative Ed Osienski
  • Rep Osienski, Senator Townsend, and Councilwoman Lisa Diller all knew that the Nuns were pushing for development as far back as 2013, but didn't think they were serious and/or would succeed at getting a plan approved. They didn't think anything would happen, and did not see the land for the invaluable opportunity that it was. They never considered land conservation in their districts, or securing a regional park for the people to enjoy and be proud of. By 2015, the CHP was far along in the planning, and their constituents had no choice now but to be TOLD what was coming to their community, instead of an appeal for comments and public input as is typical in the beginning stages of any major project. All three Legislators failed to inform and engage the Community in enough time to work together to help the Sisters realize their goal of creating affordable housing, while finding a suitable way to preserve the rest of the land. This tragedy could, and should have been avoided, through effective communication by our Legislators, with their constituents and with the Felician Sisters.
  • Approval of the CHP is a major blow to several Delaware initiatives intended to save our environment, fight climate change, and promote walkable, bikeable, and livable communities. The justification for a buyout of this land was overwhelming, and should have been jointly embraced by County and State Govt. During the STOP campaign, advocates also worked hard, and showed strength in numbers in Dover, at Bond Bill hearings, to promote funding for programs that include 10-9, or $19M, that is supposed to be included in the budget for open space and farmland acquisition and/or development rights -- by law. This was denied. Then advocates fought for open space as a plank in the Democratic platform, and that failed too. With Democrats in control of most of Delaware's legislative bodies, it would appear that open space and parkland is not their priority, and not to be funded or fought for.
Whether or not it was a vested interested in the Chestnut Hill "Preserve" (CHP), corruption, or simple indifference, one thing is abundantly clear; the loss of STOP was a colossal failure of political will and competence. The Ogletown-S. Newark region was already known to be dis-enfranchised in matters of community, place-making, and local access to quality regional parkland facilities. What has taken place here only cements this issue further, and in a way that can never be reversed. The goal now must be to replace these lawmakers with just and competent leaders who will listen to, and respect "We The People". November 2018 is not far off.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Save The Orphanage Property 4th and final Press Release

STOP has finally reached an end; Ryan Homes moving forward with Chestnut Hill "Preserve"

On Dec 11, Joe Setting and Bob Sippel (the developers) were taken out to brunch, basically getting them to the table. The goal was to find out if there was still the remotest possibility that they might consider a buyout offer for the Orphanage Property. It became apparent that both were sympathetic to the cause, and willing to consider a sale price of just over $7M. And with that, the County and State would be gifted another chance to negotiate a deal.

Unfortunately, this did not materialize in writing due to, again, lack of County commitment. New Castle County Executive Matthew Meyer was heard saying that he would consider $3M for County Council to vote on, but wanted no part in the buyout or logistics in any agreement. As the State is ill-equipped, this would leave nobody to oversee the transaction.

Despite the County, it appears that over half of the needed funding had come together on the State side, but without NCC contributing in the manner necessary, it simply wouldn't happen. Councilwoman Diller has put no known effort into convincing Meyer or her colleagues of the importance of pursuing STOP. When it comes to political will, there is nothing we as citizens can do to change it, except in the voting booth, after it's too late. And even then, by virtue of how districts are gerrymandered, even Mrs Diller as an incumbent is considered "safe" for future terms in office.

As seen early on during the first sale opportunity with the Felician Sisters, nothing in either Diller or Meyer's actions suggested that they want STOP to happen. And now, despite the gift of a second opportunity, they have chosen to run out the clock instead.

While the State has appeared the hero in all of this, it cannot be forgotten that all of STOP's district electeds were aware of the Felician Sisters attempts to develop the property as far back as 2011. No one seems to recall any of them bringing this to the community, its leaders, or the press as a "code red". They did not see the value in any of the points and arguments that STOP presented over the last 2 years. Had it been put on the radar, even in 2013, we would have worked under Exec Gordon's watch well before this Chestnut Hill "Preserve" was even conceived, and very likely achieved the outcome that Ogletown so desperately wanted and deserved.

The pre-construction meeting between NCC Land Use Dept and Ryan Homes (builders) took place yesterday. Earth movers are expected to commence clearing, grading, laying the roads, and digging the utilities in the coming days or weeks, according to the DLU. Actual building permits will come in May.

The dream of doing something great for the community is over, and will soon be replaced by a nightmare that nobody wants. Gone is bringing folks together for the sake of the planet, to preserve our quality of life, and address the need for place making in Ogletown. Now, the region will never be the same, nor will they ever have another chance at something like this.