The proposed Fisher’s Cove major subdivision has been a controversial topic in Lewes since it was first introduced in October 2018.
Two-and-a-half years later, the project’s developer, Burke and Rutecki LLC, is still seeking preliminary consent on its plan to build 18 single-family homes on an 11-acre parcel off Rodney Avenue near the University of Delaware.
The city’s planning commission held a public hearing July 13 on the latest version of the plan. The developer’s team took its allotted time to highlight changes and improvements, and how the new plan meets city code and regulations. They also took time to debunk what they believe to be misinformation and falsehoods coming from the opposition.
The opposition – residents of Rodney Avenue, neighbors and citizens throughout the city – focused on why the plan should be denied again as well as how approval would negatively affect their quality of life.
The original application was submitted in 2018. A three-month-long public hearing was held in summer 2019 before the planning commission recommended denial of preliminary consent in November 2019. After initially deferring action, mayor and city council decided in April 2020 that more information was needed before making a decision, so it remanded the application back to the planning commission for further consideration. The developer has been working for the last 15 months to gather more information and make revisions to the plan in response to concerns from the public and city staff.
The developer has reengineered its stormwater management plan and received approval from Sussex Conservation District, which doesn’t usually happen until final plans are submitted. The plan includes two wet ponds and a dry pond.
Attorney Bill Rhodunda, representing a group called Concerned Citizens of Rodney, Hoornkill and Friends, said the stormwater management plan’s concrete retaining walls are problematic for nearby properties.
“When water can’t go where it wants to go, it goes somewhere else,” he said.
He argued that approval by Sussex Conservation District does not mean the plan meets the standard of the city.
“Lewes is entitled to set a higher level of protection for its citizens,” he said.
The developer’s attorney, Jon Horner, says the plan meets all requirements set forth in city code. If the city wants a higher standard, he said, mayor and city council needs to change its code.
“The opposition is seeking to hold our application to a standard that is not in the code,” he said. “The code is the standard we must adhere to. We go by the code.”
Rhodunda also questioned what happens when the stormwater management ponds fill from storms.
In response, engineer Jeff Bross, representing the developer, said they do what they’re designed to do.
“The purpose of stormwater management ponds is, in fact, to fill during storms,” he said. “It’s kind of a nonsensical question from a non-technical person.”
Rodney Avenue resident JoEllen Jordan questioned whether a homeowners association could be trusted to keep up with the maintenance of the stormwater facilities.
“The maintaining of not one, but two wet ponds and an additional dry pond will have considerable, ongoing, long-term expense,” she said. Without proper maintenance, she said, the facilities could fall into disrepair and ultimately impact neighboring communities.
Developer’s attorney Tim Willard argued that flooding does not currently appear to be a major issue in the neighborhood. He presented the commission with sales disclosures for 25 homes on Rodney Avenue and surrounding streets dating back 10 years. In 24 of the disclosures, he said, the sellers did not list flooding as an issue. He said they were asked in the disclosure if there was standing water on the property for more than 48 hours after a storm. None of the sellers reported that to be the case, he said. The 25th seller included in the list was exempt from disclosures, which, Willard said, is typical in cases where a home is inherited.
Despite that claim, residents who live in the vicinity of Fisher’s Cove shared photographs of flooding during storms as recent as February.
Another point of contention continues to be access to the community via Rodney Avenue.
The new plan would widen the roadway from 18 feet to 24 feet, the minimum width allowed by city code. The developer also proposes to add 9-foot drainage swales on either side of the roadway to provide stormwater management for a road that currently has none.
Rodney Avenue residents say they don’t want the swales, and the road widening would have a significant impact on their homes that have been there for decades.
“We don’t have a stormwater problem,” said Rodney Avenue resident Rick Spitzborg. “Such a problem would only occur as a consequence of widening Rodney Avenue, because it increases impervious surface in the right of way by 40 percent. It would destroy hedges, the ground cover and the trees that absorb the water.”
Rodney Avenue resident Janice Pinto also argued that widening the road only benefits the 18 homes of Fisher’s Cove.
“They’re asking the city to retrieve its right of way not for the benefit of the city, but for the benefit of Fisher’s Cove,” she said. “If this can happen on Rodney, it can happen anywhere. If it only happens on Rodney, then it’s selective enforcement.”
Spitzborg said approving a plan that will dramatically impact Rodney Avenue residents goes against what the city stands for.
“It’s appalling to us that the applicant is asking [the city] to violate a core value of our city; namely, Lewes recognizes and maintains its internal communities,” he said.
While the Rodney Avenue residents focused on specific concerns, other city residents expressed more holistic worries.
“It’s incumbent on the city to make a stand against the implications of global warming and rampant development,” said Neil Shister, a Mulberry Street resident. “There are more important things here than money.”
Shipcarpenter Square resident Barbara Curtis shared Shister’s concern.
“I’m frightened with what’s happening in development in this city,” she said. “What is being proposed for the Fisher’s Cove development will affect our wetlands and will ultimately affect everything that happens in our city. I see the future of the city as pretty bleak.”
Willard said the plan meets all requirements set forth in city code and should be approved.
“The opposition attorney and concerned citizens had no engineers, no experts, to evaluate or contradict the applicant’s engineers,” Willard said. “In addition, GMB, the city’s engineer, was satisfied with the applicant’s stormwater plan at this stage. Furthermore, the Sussex Conservation District has already granted final approval of the stormwater plan, which is usually a step resolved at the final stage, not preliminary consent. It seems the opposition is not satisfied with compliance with the law; fortunately, we have laws.”