Sussex council defers vote on School Lane

Councilman Schaeffer requests alternative plan to preserve woodlands on 22-acre parcel
August 5, 2022

Story Location:
Route 24
Mulberry Knoll Road
Lewes, DE 19958
United States

Following a July 26 public hearing, Sussex County Council voted to defer a decision on three pending applications for the proposed School Lane subdivision along Route 24 adjacent to Love Creek Elementary School.

Council is leaving the record open to allow time for the applicant to respond to a request to determine the feasibility of redesigning the layout of the community to preserve an existing 8.3 acres of forest along the western border of the nearly 22-acre property. The proposed site plan includes removal of about half of the existing woodlands.

During the hearing, District 3 Councilman Mark Schaeffer, who made the motion, asked Ring Lardner, the applicant's engineer, if there was a way to preserve the woodlands and cluster the housing units on the open farmland. “I need time to answer that question,” Lardner replied.

The same request has been made by the residents of the adjacent Saddle Ridge community.

Three applications filed

Applicant and landowner J.G. Townsend Jr. and Company has filed to rezone the 22-acre parcel from AR-1, agricultural-residential, to MR, medium-density residential, and filed a conditional-use application for 84 units of multifamily housing. In addition, the applicant is seeking an amendment to the county’s future land-use plan to change a small section of the parcel from a commercial to a coastal-area designation to match the rest of the property.

The parcel is located between Love Creek Elementary School and the Saddle Ridge and Four Seasons at Belle Terre communities, Delaware State Police Troop 7 and across from Beacon Middle School.

Access to the parcel would be a connection to the Love Creek school entrance intersection, which includes a traffic signal along Route 24.

The parcel also contains nearly 11 acres of farmland and two acres of wetlands. The wetlands area, along the border with the Saddle Ridge community, would remain undisturbed and be protected with a 50-foot buffer using existing trees.

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

Access easement exists

Since the planning & zoning commission recommendation was made, the applicant and county planning & zoning office have been made aware of a 12.5-foot access-egress easement to an adjacent property owned by Tom and Nancy Lang that exists within the proposed area of development.

During testimony, Nancy Lang said they learned about the proposed project after seeing a photo in the Cape Gazette.

“We request you put a hold on the development to address and resolve any breach of our easement,” she said.

“Is this a major hurdle?” asked Schaeffer.

David Hutt, the applicant's attorney, replied that it could be one for not only the developer but also the Langs.

He said the applicant's team has started preliminary discussions with the couple to see if they are amenable to access through an interior street within School Lane. “I'm optimistic we can work that out,” Hutt said.

Lardner said state transportation officials will also be part of the negotiation process.

Plans for the project

The proposed community includes central water and sewer service, a shared-use path, sidewalks, two parking spaces per unit with overflow parking, a pool, a bathhouse and a sports field area. The proposed open space is 11 acres, or 52% of the total parcel.

A 20-foot landscaped buffer is included along the boundaries with Saddle Ridge, Belle Terre and Love Creek school. The site plan includes 14 two-story buildings comprising six units each.

Lardner said, combining buffer and setback areas, there would be 90 feet of space between the borders with the Saddle Ridge and Belle Terre communities.

The project is included in the Henlopen Transportation Improvement District, and the applicant would be required to contribute a fee per lot, totaling $341,796, for road improvement projects in the district. The fee must be paid prior to issuance of any building permits.

Lardner said no additional improvements are required at the access intersection.

The Delaware Department of Transportation has plans to widen Route 24 and provide turn lanes from the Mulberry Knoll intersection to Love Creek in front of the parcel. A traffic signal will be constructed at the Mulberry Knoll Road-Route 24 intersection. The project is projected to be completed in 2024.

The proposed School Lane project is estimated to generate 594 vehicle trips per day.

Answering concerns

Hutt said multifamily housing is appropriate in the coastal area, which is a growth area, and is consistent with the county's comprehensive plan.

Hutt also took time to answer some of the concerns expressed by nearby residents about a shared entrance with a school and the impact of multifamily housing adjacent to a school.

He provided maps showing several multifamily communities adjacent to Cape Henlopen High School, H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in Milton, Rehoboth Elementary School, East Millsboro Elementary School and Mariner Middle School in Milton.

He said an experienced appraiser hired by the applicant said there would not be a negative impact on property values with multifamily housing near a school.

He also provided maps showing several schools throughout the state that had shared access with adjacent residential communities.

“These are not unique circumstances with shared entrances and multifamily housing adjacent to schools,” Hutt said. “And with traffic concerns, DelDOT has said there would be a minor traffic impact.”

Residents: Preserve the forest

Judy Rose Seibert, representing the Saddle Ridge subdivision, presented a petition with 119 signatures requesting that council preserve the woodlands and only allow development of the farmland. “It's a win-win situation by developing only the crop land portion of the site. The developer can still get the financial gain with higher density and also preserve the forest,” she said. “This would provide minimum impact on the environmental resources.”

She said while the density of the proposed project is 3.9 units per acre, up to 8 units per acre is permitted on MR- zoned land.

Seibert said state planners recommended the developer avoid removing the forest to the greatest extent possible.

She said the existing forest is 450 feet wide and provides a large buffer between Saddle Ridge and the property. She said the woods is part of the Delaware Ecological Network and the Love Creek Nature Area and is contiguous with Hetty Fisher Pond.

Seibert, who has an environmental background, said the forested area near her development has large-diameter mature trees with drop lines, or canopies, that fall from 11 to 35 feet on the School Lane parcel. Some trees are as old as 100 years, she said, adding any disturbance would likely kill the trees.

Seibert said according to the property owner's application, an on-site visit by state environmental officials to determine whether or not a mature forest exists would not be permitted.

Pat Hutchinson, a Belle Terre resident, said there are no other townhomes in the immediate area. “The houses should be similar to communities around them,” she said.

The former teacher said she is concerned about a shared entrance with a school. “We need more information on the impact on the school,” she said.

Wetlands buffer planned

Ed Launay, the applicant's environmental consultant, said because the two acres of wetlands are nontidal and isolated, they are not regulated and do not require a buffer, but the applicant has chosen to provide a buffer ranging in width from 50 feet to more than 75 feet.

Launay said there are no endangered or threatened species on the property, and the three rare species of tree frogs mentioned in the state's Preliminary Land Use Service report were not on the proposed parcel but in the area of Hetty Fisher Pond, which is 450 feet away, and Welches Pond, which is 3,000 feet away from the parcel.


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