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Alliance seeks to preserve Groome property

Lewes church has agreed to sell 135-acre tract to developer
December 22, 2017

The New Road Preservation Alliance sees the 135-acre Groome Church property on New Road as a piece to a larger puzzle to preserve 1,100 acres bordering the Great Marsh. 

While the church wants to sell the land to raise money for a new church, the Alliance is continuing its efforts for preservation, citing traffic, environmental and historical concerns. 

Nearly 175 people crammed into the community meeting room at the new Rollins Center on Adams Avenue in Lewes Dec. 14, to learn more about the property the church has agreed to sell to a developer. 

“We absolutely desire to work with Groome Church to agree on a win-win outcome for all,” said Alliance member Doug Spellman. “Should we fail to do so, we will move to Plan B.” 

“There are still ongoing negotiations, which are confidential,” said Ron Vickers, who worked as manager of the state’s Land Preservation Office for 23 years before retiring in 2016. “We’re trying to work something out. It’s not entirely dead yet.”

Vickers worked in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Parks and Recreation for 32 years. During his time with the Land Preservation Office, he worked closely with the state’s Open Space Council. 

Vickers said work began in 2014 to preserve the Groome property, along with three other large neighboring tracts totaling about 1,100 acres. The other properties include the 523-acre Hercules farm directly behind the Groome property, the 363-acre Lank farm to the west and the 81-acre Knapp property on New Road, west of the Groome parcel. 

J.G. Townsend Jr. & Co. owns the Hercules and Lank properties. Vickers said the state negotiated with J.G. Townsend to preserve their lands, but the company stipulated the Groome property must be also preserved because development would directly affect their property. Church officials became involved in discussions with the state and J.G. Townsend, but then struck a deal with the developer. 

“We were to the point where we structured a deal which I think everybody was pretty happy with,” Vickers said.

The deal depended on funds in the open space program, which, Vickers said, has not been funded in three years. The state is required by law to allocate $9 million of realty transfer taxes annually to the open space council, but this has not occurred since 2014.  

“That kind of threw a little bit of a wrinkle into the whole project, even though J.G. Townsend was willing to step up and do even more,” Vickers said.

The terms of the package put together by the state and J.G. Townsend were not made public, nor was the sale price of the property under contract to the developer. 

In a September interview, the Rev. Will Crossan, Groome’s pastor, said church officials planned to use the proceeds from the sale to purchase land to build a new church. 

Ocean Atlantic Companies President Preston Schell, when discussing a rezoning request for a parcel between Kings Highway and Savannah Road at a Dec. 11 Lewes Mayor and City Council meeting, said he was approached by church officials about acquiring the 7.11-acre portion of the property that fronts Savannah Road. Schell said his company made an offer to the church, but hasn’t heard from them recently.

“My presumption is they’re dealing with the public relations issues associated with the property they are currently in contract to sell on New Road,” he said. “I think their interest in this property is somewhat predicated on that deal going through.” 

Environmental issues 

DNREC Environmental Program Manager Mike Powell said the properties eyed for preservation that border the Great Marsh have issues related to sea level rise and flooding. 

If development were to occur on the Hercules or Lank properties, he said, future residents of the entire area would have to worry about flooding.

“We have very accurate topographic data for the entire state that allows us to look at 1-foot increments of the vertical elevation,” he said. “This land would be impacted by storm surge flooding.”

Sea level rise would exacerbate the issues, he said, causing the 100- and 500-year flood levels to stretch farther into the properties. 

With 2 feet of sea level rise, Powell said, the low-lying Canary Creek bridge, the likely route into Lewes from the properties, would flood on every high tide. Recorded data from a buoy in the Delaware Bay shows the bay has risen 13 inches in the last 100 years. 

The Canary Creek bridge, which already often floods at high tide during a storm event, is structurally sound, and there are no plans to replace or widen it, said Sarah Coakley of the Department of Transportation.

Transportation issues

The developer has been in contact with DelDOT’s development coordination section, Coakley said. She said the developer intends to build 295 homes on the parcel. 

If a project is expected to generate more than 50 peak hour trips or more than 500 daily trips, then the developer is required to do a traffic-impact study.

“A scoping letter has been sent to a traffic engineer outlining the requirements for conducting the TIS,” she said. “The TIS has not been completed yet.”

Bill Brockenbrough, a DelDOT planner, said the department has been working with the developer’s traffic engineer, The Traffic Group, and its civil/site engineer Solutions IPEM. 

Coakley said New Road is about 20 feet wide in most areas with little to no shoulder until the city limits of Lewes. She said DelDOT studied the road several years ago and determined that to widen the road, rights of way would have to be purchased and utilities would have to be relocated. 

Depending on the result of the traffic study, she said, the developer is responsible for funding improvements, with oversight from DelDOT.  

Alliance urges action

Spellman and fellow Alliance member Dave Ennis, a former state representative, urged those in attendance at the Dec. 14 meeting to call for action if they want to see the Groome property preserved. Each called on the public to call local elected officials and write letters to the editor. 

“We have to be politically active,” Ennis said. “We have to get in the hunt, folks.” 

To learn more about the Alliance and its efforts, go to www.preservelewes.com

Property has long history

Ralph Prettyman, a local historian, says the Groome property has a long history of human inhabitation, going back to the earliest days of Lewes. 

A map sketched by David DeVries after the founding of the Zwaanendael fort in the 1600s shows the locations of a Dutch West Indies trading post and Native American dwellings, which align with what is today’s Groome property, he said. 

“Native Americans were here first,” he said. “We are still discovering evidence of their presence.”

The Groome land was once part of a larger tract called Tower Hill. The Groome property was owned by Prettyman’s ancestors from the late 17th century until 1926, when it was sold to Ira Brittingham. It was later passed on to Chester Brittingham, who stipulated in his will that his estate be liquidated and given to Groome Church, including his real estate holdings. The church purchased Brittingham’s property at real estate sale, knowing the proceeds would come back to them. 

Prettyman is confident there are still remnants of his ancestors’ 19th century homestead on the property. He pointed to the discovery of a 17th century homestead and burials at Avery’s Rest, west of Rehoboth Beach, saying the Groome site could offer a similar window into colonial living in the Cape Region. 

“Lands making up several of these tracts are important to keep open from an environmental and ecological perspective, but also for a historical perspective,” he said. “Not everything can and should be developed and paved over.” 

If human remains are found on the site, the developer is required to immediately stop work and contact the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said Doug Denison, director of Community Relations of the Department of State. If artifacts alone are found, further investigation may be needed to determine if the site is significant and should be preserved in place, he said. 

Prior to any development, Denison said, developers are encouraged to consult with the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs regarding archaeological assessments, he said. 

Past preservation efforts

Efforts to preserve the four Great Marsh properties started even before the most recent 2014 negotiations began. The Hercules farm is named after the Hercules Powder Company, a Wilmington-based manufacturer of gunpowder and chemicals. The company owned several hundred acres of land along New Road and eventually sold land off to the University of Delaware and Sussex County. The county had planned to build a regional wastewater treatment plant on the site of the Hercules farm in the early 1990s, but after realizing the plant would be too far from the population it would serve, it sold the land to J.G. Townsend Jr. & Co. As part of the deal, the county acquired the land where the Wolfe Neck wastewater treatment facility now sits at the end of Wolfe Neck Road. 

Prior to the sale to J.G. Townsend, Vickers said, the state approached the county seeking to purchase the marshland and other land for an upland buffer; however, the county wanted to sell all of the land or none of it. 

Vickers said the state again tried to purchase some of the land in 2000, approaching J.G. Townsend about buying the marshland and adjacent land for a buffer. 

“They said no, and they wanted to save the property for the next generation of family to decide what to do with it,” Vickers said.

Then in 2014, J.G. Townsend approached the Nature Conservancy about protecting the land, kicking off current conservation efforts for all four Great Marsh properties. 

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