Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

June 26, 2014

People come to Lewes because of it its image as a warm, friendly, historic, scenic, and quaint beach town with desirable ambience and activities - someplace they’d like to live. That, of course, makes the real estate attractive and building, a target for developers. But Lewes has limited places left to build, and has not pursued annexation goals in its current comprehensive plan. Now, two proposed major subdivisions are on the planning commission agenda, and one would require annexation. There is also a third, awaiting results of pending action.

Highland Heights is an 18.5 acre parcel in a section of what is called, in the Lewes Comprehensive Plan, the Fourth Street Extended Woodlands - an approximately 40-acre-plus tract of former farmland allowed to grow into the largest and last remaining forest fragment in the Lewes city limits. It forms a central feature of the scenic view from three of six proposed main routes of the Lewes Scenic and Historic Byway, an important project involving federal, state, county, and Lewes partners in long-range planning and development of features and activities crucial to maintaining and improving the city’s attraction to residents, visitors, and businesses.

For at least 20 years, this tract has been proposed for open space and permanent acquisition by the city, with a 1995 report specifically noting, “further development [of these parcels] for private use would dramatically and negatively alter the fabric of the communities wherein these parcels are located.” In the June 18 public hearing on Highland Heights, developers noted that no one from the city has ever approached the owners about making an offer to acquire the land. So, what is the community of Lewes to think? Standing in the wings, for the remainder of the Extended Woodlands, are developers who stated last August, at the first public meeting on Highland Heights, that they were waiting to see the outcome of that proposal before submitting a plan for the Rollins property, a tract of more than 20 acres. In other words, approve Highland Heights and the rest of the woodlands would soon follow with development totally eliminating the main woodlands as a central feature of the Lewes Scenic Byway and its view from so many points all around.

But let us consider what is additionally at stake. The Highland Heights proposal would have two separate entrances for two isolated cul-de-sacs because that’s the only way to avoid the wetlands in the middle. The Rollins property is an even more extensive continuation of that wetlands area. The tree canopy would essentially be removed - in accordance with a Forestry Service report that was submitted - either by construction, destruction, or contraction by fill in which the trees can’t grow - despite assurances by their hired environmental designer that they would create attractive wetland “edges,” plant tree borders along the roadways, and create an obligation for a homeowners association to maintain a wetlands preservation plan and walkways for the public.

As one witness commented at the public hearing: why would a group of 34 owners paying some $800,000 per home want responsibility for an expensive permanent maintenance project - incidentally, on top of highly costly remediation to fix the tax ditch bordering the property that would also be imposing fees, with estimated costs of current repairs from $650,000 to more than a million dollars (for which, the developers conspicuously avoided making any financial commitment of their own).

At the price and restricted entry to this housing, and failure to make thru-connections to other surrounding neighborhoods, this would essentially create two exclusive and effectively gated (by landscape) communities greatly exceeding the price of nearby properties. Adding the Rollins property would then further complicate the situation. Meanwhile, despite assurances that development would be designed to not violate state law and exacerbate stormwater and drainage problems, the lack of actual financing to fix an already broken tax ditch does not portend any real solution. The reduction of permeable surface, redistribution or addition of fill for construction, and loss of tree canopy would by itself decrease water capture in the wetland flora, drive out the wildlife currently residing there, and otherwise disrupt the ecology.

This then leads us to consider the other proposed development project, the partial annexation of Point Farm, a 635-acre property from which 108 acres is being carved out and proposed for annexation as Harbor Point. Why add “harbor” to the name? Perhaps because it is surrounded on the two long sides of a triangular shaped parcel by the Great Marsh - a massive state-owned wetland preservation area. Moreover, the only entrance to this proposed subdivision of 69 units would be through a state-owned parklands roadway into a private residential community.

In addition to potential legal violations incurred to attain waiver for an apparently unprecedented use of public parkland for private purposes, and once again encroaching on wetlands in the middle of the property itself (as with the Highland Heights project), no wetlands “buffers” are proposed in the plans, despite specific recommendations by the Office of State Planning Coordination in the required PLUS review. Additionally, archaeological artifacts have been found with some indication of a possible ancient burial ground. Ignoring the fact that this would occur in a flood plain, entailing expected high expense to homeowners as FEMA flood insurance costs escalate under implementation of federal law, building in the Coastal Zone does nothing to further community resilience, but much to put public health, safety, and welfare at risk.

During a major storm, for instance, besides flooding on New Road and other factors causing road congestion, Harbor Point itself could experience flooding from below through the low-permeability clay lens, flooding around from the Great Marsh, and flooding from above in a downpour that can cause the storm ponds to overflow within the development.

It appears that the only reasons for the proposed annexation are: (1) to get water and power from the Lewes Board of Public Works, since the county can’t cross Canary Creek to run lines in, and (2) the county zoning would require larger lot sizes and reduce the number of houses - although, Lewes would have to violate its own comprehensive plan to approve the requested smaller lot sizes. Meanwhile, the developers would be free to build on the other 527 acres not annexed, but otherwise adjacent, where County services can be obtained. This is an area, incidentally, specifically targeted in the Lewes Comprehensive Plan for annexation to limit or prevent development and promote preservation of open space.

Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of desirability for living in Lewes? The chairman of the Lewes Planning Commission commented in recent workshops for developing the 2015 Comprehensive Plan that the housing market collapse in 2008 made the 2005 plan assumptions “unrealistic," but how would he know, when no effort has been made by the City to find out the community’s willingness and capacity to take action? Neither private nor public funds have been sought to make acquisition of the Fourth Street Extended Woodlands, for instance, even though this is precisely what was done to acquire land for the Waterfront Park of which the community is so proud.

Nothing has been done to create a possible land trust or park district, as allowed by state law. Instead, the public hearing process has been rigged to favor developers - for instance, hiring a city solicitor whose website advertises how the firm advocates on behalf of developers, and who himself served as counsel for the Canary Creek development adjacent to Harbor Point. Meanwhile, arduous rules are imposed, causing the newest member of the planning commission, a former college president and scientist who previously promoted getting better expert advice for the commission and properly considering environmental concerns, to recuse himself from participating in the Highland Heights deliberations - effectively being silenced and excommunicated from both community and commission participation.

Ground rules for public participation in formal hearings give unlimited time to the developers and ask for their “rebuttal” after the public comment; while the public is asked to put representatives of groups with multiple issues first, limit comments to five minutes each, don’t repeat anything previous speakers have said, and withhold audience reactions so no one knows the breadth, depth, intensity, focus, enthusiasm, or fury, the public may be thinking or feeling. All commissioners are moreover enjoined from “ex parte communication” on any pending matters, even while city officials may engage and negotiate with developers in advance.

So exactly how can the planning commission actually gauge community opinion and sentiment, especially when they have not exercised the authority and advice of state law and officials to secure thorough reports and competent experts - and while they evade actual compliance with a Lewes Comprehensive Plan expressing the community consensus that, according to the State Code, “has the force of law?” Yet, Lewes officials plead poverty on myriad matters, while Lewes residents pay lower taxes than any other jurisdiction in Sussex County, including the county itself.

When the dust settles, will Lewes find itself sinking with the receding land surface and rising sea level as its beauty, heritage, legacy, and attraction subside with its property values destroyed by chasing the chimera of gold from a dead goose?

Richard Moore

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