Groome United Methodist Church has agreed to sell about 150 acres along New Road to a developer who plans to build a single-family home community.
The Rev. Will Crossan III said the church plans to use the proceeds to purchase land in or around Lewes where a brand new church will be constructed.
He said a local group made an effort to preserve the property, but it could not produce enough money to compete with the developer’s offer. Crossan declined to name the developer or the purchase price.
“This was not a rash decision,” said Crossan who has been working to sell the property for more than two years. “We’re trying to prepare for the future here.”
He continued, “We collectively at the church have to be responsible for the next generation of people who will be coming here for a place to worship. We owe it to them to do the best we can with what we have, and I think we did.”
The existing sanctuary at Groome holds 125 people and dates back to 1904. The plan, Crossan said, is to purchase about 10 acres for a new church. The historic sanctuary would then disassembled from its existing Savannah Road location and taken to the new property, where it would be reassembled and used for special events. The plan calls for a new church to be built with the capacity of about 350.
There is an effort afoot, he said, to grow the church congregation. By adding contemporary elements, such as its new Anchor Coffee Shop, a monthly showcase for performing and visual arts, the church is working to attract a new, and possibly younger, crowd.
Groome officials tried to sell their New Road property in 2007, before Crossan’s tenure, but the economic downturn stalled that effort.
“It’s taken this long to get back to where the market made sense to attempt to sell it,” Crossan said.
He continually stressed that the church did not rush to a decision.
“We really didn’t leave any stones unturned,” he said. “As a matter of fact, when we finally signed a contract with the developer, we even wrote in a 15-day waiting period so that the green space people would have one last opportunity to come in and make an offer.”
Deal included cash and land
The preservation offer came from J.G. Townsend Jr. & Co., said Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton, who along with Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, acted as mediators to broker a deal to preserve the property and not develop it.
The deal included cash and land, Burton said. “This was the most incredible offer from this family that I've ever seen in my life,” Burton said.
Burton said he could not disclose the specifics of the land and cash deal.
He said he was saddened the church did not accept the deal. “It's a tragedy in my opinion,” he said. “But I understand it's their land.”
After several meetings, Burton said, they had a final meeting to present the deal in writing to the church. “We thought we left with the deal completed,” he said.
However, he said, two days later he received an email that the church had decided to move in another direction and take the developer's offer. “It was a real blow because we thought we had it for all the right reasons,” Burton said.
“The downside is instead of preservation, the land will be developed and water and sewer will be run to the property, which will make the rest of New Road possible for development,” he said. “It could become the Gills Neck Road of the north.”
Burton said the Groome property was a key piece to a larger Great Marsh conservation proposal developed by the state that included more than 1,000 acres – 565 in farmland, 416 in wetlands and 115 wooded. If fully developed, nearly 1,500 building lots could be available.
Under the proposal, the state officials were prepared to work to secure funding and easements to preserve the entire 1,000 acres – including two large parcels owned by J.G. Townsend and another parcel owned by the Knapp family. The J.G. Townsend lands border the Great Marsh.
The area is the southern anchor for Delaware Bayshore conservation efforts.
It remains to be seen whether the preservation effort of the remaining lands will continue. For now, Burton said, those involved in the deal are taking a step back. “We were doing this because we care about preserving this property,” Burton said.
Burton said he realizes his behind-the-scenes work means he will have to recuse for any public hearing that may arise from an application for a rezoning or conditional use for the property.
Lewes mayor disappointed
Lewes Mayor Ted Becker was at the forefront of an earlier effort to preserve the land. In December 2016, Becker and a contingent of Lewes officials and residents appeared at the Open Space Council meeting in Dover. At the meeting, he urged the council to consider earmarking money to go toward the preservation efforts. The council had agreed to appropriate up to $2 million toward negotiations for a conservation easement on the Groome property.
“We had hoped that it could’ve been preserved,” Becker said. “Now, we’re very concerned about potential development on the New Road corridor. It’s a very narrow road, and it’s a pretty major artery for getting into Lewes.”
In July 2016, Lewes officials released a report they commissioned from planning consultant Environmental Resources Management Inc. In the study, ERM said New Road should be widened in order to sustain higher traffic accounts. New Road is 20 feet wide with no shoulder in many places along the road. The study estimates traffic could increase three to four times if large-scale development occurs on the open land along New Road.
Groome’s land is not contiguous with Lewes city limits, so annexation and preservation was not an option for Lewes officials, Becker said.
“We’re going to be monitoring this closely as it goes forward,” he said.