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.
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+ minute 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|
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 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 Senator 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)|
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 communications from Meyer that are 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.