Why Overbrook Town Center is good for Sussex County?
Don't be alarmed by the headline: this oversized, out of character, environmentally degrading, traffic- snarling proposed monstrosity must be denied once and for all. Sussex County Council denied approval once, and must do so again May 1.
But the Overbrook Town Center proposal may already have been a catalyst for real, meaningful and permanent change in the way Sussex County plans for and manages its future development.
The Overbrook Town Center Coalition was formed to oppose this rezoning proposal, arguably the most egregious but certainly not the only out of character, out of scale, quality of life killer being proposed in Sussex County. OTCC is an alliance of concerned citizens and like-minded organizations from all over Eastern Sussex County who either would be directly impacted by this project or share a common concern over the ease with which such projects seem to move through the county approval process.
During the April 10 public hearing, the OTCC and numerous citizens from Milton to Lewes again spoke out against this proposal. Nearly 1,500 letters of opposition are in the record. Only the applicant spoke in favor. The OTCC detailed five primary reasons why this rezoning should be denied. They are:
• The council should not focus on just one proposed use or purpose. Under the current zoning laws, the developer can intentionally present one site plan at the hearing but is not bound to adhere to it. In fact, under the proposed zoning, the developer could build any mix of many permitted uses, from hotels to car lots to lumber yards to regional shopping centers, or all the above with no input or review from Sussex County Council as to whether it is appropriate to the area.
• The rezoning of this large tract of land for an 850,000-square-foot shopping center (think Christiana Mall) is grossly out of character with the surrounding zoning and the current use of adjacent properties. The 114-acre parcel sits in the middle of active farmlands. It currently is an active farm. It is in immediate proximity to the Great Marsh, a valuable and vulnerable natural resource. It is within two miles of thousands of existing homes whose residents certainly never thought they were buying into living near a regional shopping mall.
• The State of Delaware has designated this parcel and the area around it as an Investment Level 4 under the Delaware Strategies for State Policies and Spending. Under this policy, state resources and funding would only be used to:
- Retain the rural landscape
- Preserve open spaces and farmlands
- Support farmland-related activates
- Establish defined edges for more concentrated development
- Protect critical natural habitat and wildlife, aquifer recharge, and stormwater management.
Crucially, the state will not invest transportation dollars to support growth, commercial or residential, in a designated Level 4 area.
The parcel in question, located along already congested Route 1, is subject to the State Corridor Capacity Preservation Program, which requires any development to not increase congestion on the roadways. Route 1 between Milton, Lewes and Rehoboth is the highest- ranked High Congestion area noted in the draft 2018 Sussex County Comprehensive Plan.
According to the developers' 2014 Traffic Impact Study, when the OTC opens it would increase peak traffic loads by more than 60 percent, 2,000 to 3,000 more vehicles per hour. This on an already congested Route 1. So much for not increasing congestion, not to mention the potential for significant increases in emergency response time, and the overburdening of local first responders.
Finally, in addition to its proximity to the Great Marsh, which could be harmed by stormwater runoff, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has determined that a significant portion of the proposed site falls within an excellent groundwater recharge area. The increase in impervious cover may adversely affect groundwater quality and potentially impact those in the area dependent on wells for their water supply.
Of the 114 acres, 89.8 acres, or 78 percent, would morph from farmland to impervious surface: rooftops, sidewalks and 5,100 parking spaces.
While the above are the fact-based critical reasons to deny this application, OTCC has and will continue to raise other, less quantifiable but no less important concerns as to the impact on area residents' quality of life: the costs of extreme sprawl development, the loss of prime agricultural land and open space, and does a huge expansion of retail make sense in these days and times of pervasive internet commerce and declining brick and mortal retail. OTCC's website (www.know-otc.org) will keep you up to the minute with factual, unbiased information.
However, OTC has had one positive result. It forced the formation of the OTCC which has given risen to the Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth as other major developments have spurred the formation of other responsible growth groups. SARG seeks to bind these like-minded groups into a county-wide citizen action alliance with the mission of educating the public on the development planning and approval processes in Sussex County, and getting them engaged in not only monitoring them but in reforming them. Natives to newbies, residents are coming together for a common purpose.
Because of the OTC proposal, SARG recognized that the underlying reason that an OTC could happen was because the Sussex County Comprehensive Plan allowed it. That plan is now being revised, and SARG has been active in seeking to change its priority from any growth, anywhere, anytime to a more transparent process that considers the residents' quality of life.
Even as SARG has ramped up our efforts, change has been in the wind. Credit is due to the Sussex Planning & Zoning Commission and Sussex County Council for changes already adopted such as requiring interconnectivity of commercial projects, the adoption of new commercial zoning districts with very specific uses, and requiring that definitive site plans be presented to the council, not just a blank check.
Baby steps perhaps, but positive and commendable.
Both the planning commission and especially county council have taken a more thoughtful approach to the drafting of the new comprehensive plan. They hired a very competent consultant to assist and together they have engaged in a rigorous analysis of the county, and have shown a marked willingness to consider different approaches. There is a growing awareness and understanding of how it all fits together, especially land use, transportation and conservation, which has resulted in a marked decrease in the Growth Areas proposed in the draft Land Use Map.
SARG has attended every planning commission and county council workshop and meeting about the new comprehensive plan, and will continue to do so. This plan will guide the county’s growth over the next 10 years, and potentially beyond. At this critical juncture, with our transportation system reaching gridlock status and growth overwhelming existing communities, it is imperative that the new plan reflects the priorities of the residents, not those of developers. SARG does not oppose growth; it is an advocate for responsible growth that complements and enhances our communities, not harms them.
SARG will continue to listen to everyone and work in a positive fashion with the county government to assure that the next comprehensive plan begins the process of solving our transportation problems and provides for a more measured, considered approach to responsible growth.
SARG welcomes anyone, no matter their viewpoint, to participate in building a better future for Sussex County. The comprehensive plan process is at a critical stage, and now is the time for anyone concerned about the future growth and development of the county to step up and be heard. If you want to know what is happening, click on www.sarg2018.org. Again, SARG’s website will keep you up to the minute with factual, unbiased information.
Finally, while we may give some credit to the OTC with bringing us together it must be emphasized that OTC, as harmful to the county as it would be, must once and for all be denied May 1.
Please let Sussex County Council know how you feel.
Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth