Lewes wells key issue in Mitchell's Corner debate

City and BPW officials raise several concerns with proposed Kings Highway mixed-use project
April 29, 2022

An environmental consultant hired by the developer of the proposed Mitchell's Corner complex along Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road in Lewes said the project would not have an adverse impact on five City of Lewes water wells in the vicinity. A section of the 44-acre parcel for the project is in the Lewes wellhead protection area.

However, City of Lewes and Lewes Board of Public Works officials still have concerns about potential impact on the city's drinking water supply.

Mitchell's Corner, just outside Lewes city limits, would be a mix of 267 multifamily housing units and an office building.

Consultant Steve Cahill, on behalf of developer Henlopen Properties LLC, said millions of gallons of additional recharged water would be available to the Lewes wells each year. In addition, he said, residential and commercial land use does not typically impact supply wells as demonstrated by the water quality maintained in the Lewes well field over the years.

He said pre-treatment of all runoff to screen debris and potential petroleum releases would occur in the project's infiltration basin, which would be located in the wellhead protection area.

The developer has filed a supplemental report relating to the wellheads to an existing environmental assessment to council.

The Lewes BPW, which manages all utilities in the city, wants more time to review the 55-page supplemental report on the wellheads placed into the public record during Sussex County Council's April 26 meeting.

Tom Panetta, BPW secretary, who voiced several concerns with the project relating to wellhead protection issues during the planning & zoning hearing, also spoke during the council hearing.

He said the BPW has hired its own geotechnical team to review the applications and report back to the organization. Panetta said BPW won't get the final report for another week, and he requested council leave the public record open.

In addition, he said, BPW and its environmental team will need additional time to review the supplemental environmental report filed by the developer. “Then we can provide you with more details, recommendations and areas of concern,” he said.

The City of Lewes has its five water wells on a parcel on the west side of Kings Highway near Cape Henlopen High School.

Following a lengthy public hearing, Sussex County Council voted to defer any action on the applications, and set Friday, May 6, as a deadline to allow public comment in writing on the report. BPW will also have time to submit its geotechnical report.

Also included in the motion by District 3 Councilman Mark Schaeffer is another deadline of Friday, May 20, for the applicant to submit any response to public and BPW comments.

Four applications for project

The project requires two rezonings, AR-1 agricultural-residential to C-2 medium commercial for an office complex on a 3-acre section of the overall 44-acre property, and from AR-1 to MR medium-density residential for high-density housing.

A conditional-use application for 267 multifamily housing units and a subdivision application for the entire parcel are also required.

Developer Henlopen Properties LLC of Owings Mills, Md., has proposed 114 duplexes, 153 townhomes and a three-acre commercial/office building site.

At its April 14 meeting, Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission recommended approval of the four applications.

Robert Mitchell, who lives on the property, said the parcel has been in the family for seven generations. “We have roots there,” he said. “We feel obligated to make sure to the best of our ability that we choose wisely, that what we're going to do contributes and benefits our neighbors. We don't take it lightly.”

He said the developer's plan incorporates the family's concern with quality-of-life issues. “We are very comfortable leaving this entrusted to them,” he said.

David Hutt, the developer’s attorney, said because of current and future development in the area, farming the parcel is no longer sustainable.

Consultant: No adverse impacts

Cahill said in 2016, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environment Control officials were asked by the planning & zoning commission to comment on water quality in the wellhead protection area in regard to the Village Center shopping complex to be constructed along Kings Highway. He said DNREC’s response was that based on the sample results from the last five to 10 years, there has been no change in water quality.

“This is an important observation as the proposed development of the property is consistent with historical and existing land use within the wellhead protection area,” he said.

Cahill said there is often the misperception that developing a site will automatically result in the degradation of surface water and groundwater quality.

“Water supply wells are found throughout Delaware within residential and commercial areas with no adverse impacts from the surrounding land use,” he said.

In summary, he said, the quantity of recharge would be substantially increased post development, providing the Lewes well field with millions of additional gallons of water. The loading of nitrates, phosphorus, herbicides and pesticides to surface water and groundwater would be reduced.

Soil erosion and the volume of stormwater runoff would be reduced. Soil conditions and depth to groundwater are favorable for infiltration and recharge.

Cahill said the Lewes supply wells have historically provided acceptable drinking water with a variety of land uses present in the wellhead protection area. He said those include commercial properties and more than 200 homes, many of which were served by septic systems before a sanitary sewer system was provided.

Kings Highway runs directly adjacent to the well field with traffic totals exceeding 12,000 vehicles per day with no treatment of stormwater conveyed into the wellhead area, he said, and impervious cover at Cape Henlopen High School exceeds 1 million square feet.

Panetta said while this proposed project covers a section of the wellhead protection area, there are other projects approved and pending along Kings Highway that could impact the wells as well.

“You have to look at the cumulative effect of all development on Kings Highway. You can't take just this one in isolation,” he said. “We'd like to see a holistic approach to the Lewes wellheads.”

Panetta said the city has invested in protecting its wells. In 2020, city and BPW officials partnered with county officials and J.G. Townsend Jr. & Co to purchase and preserve the Jones Farm for $5.5 million, a 37.5-acre parcel adjacent to the well fields.

City of Lewes in opposition

In addition to Lewes BPW, Lewes Mayor and Council has gone on record against the applications. In an April 25 letter sent to council, Mayor Ted Becker outlined four areas of concern: Proximity to Lewes well fields; high density and the lack of affordable units; impact on existing high traffic volume; and lack of a master plan for the area involving property owners and Lewes, BPW and county officials.

Read the complete letter here.

During council's April 26 meeting, Schaeffer said he feels the concerns expressed by Lewes officials have been addressed. “We've made a yeoman's effort to answer their questions. It's important to pay attention to their concerns,” he said.

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Part 2 will appear in an upcoming edition of the Cape Gazette and deal with project details and proposed road improvements.


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