Lewes-area residents opposed to a commercial rezoning application along Old Orchard Road told Sussex County Council that its planning and zoning commission was right to recommend denial of the request that would pave the way for a 50,000-square-foot medical office building.
Larry Fifer, the developer’s attorney, disagreed. He said the commission was in error pointing to a planning and zoning staff analysis that found rezoning consistent with nearby land uses in the vicinity and compatible with the county comprehensive plan.
Citing steep increases in traffic and the scale of the proposed project, several Village of Five Points residents representing hundreds of their neighbors spoke in opposition to the rezoning.
The two sides squared off during council’s Jan. 8 public hearing on a rezoning from AR-1, agricultural-residential, to C-2 medium commercial filed by Old Orchard Ventures LLC for a 6-acre parcel. Council deferred action on the application to a future meeting.
The developer has plans to build Orchard Plaza, a three-story, 50,000-square-foot medical office building adjacent to another planned 50,000 square-foot office building on another parcel of land already zoned commercial.
The proposed medical office building is part of the developer's master plan for a 25-acre parcel along Old Orchard Road that includes 100,000 square feet of medical office space, an already approved skilled nursing facility known as Tranquility at Breakwater ,and Oyster Cove, an already approved 24-unit, age-restricted multifamily subdivision.
Fifer said the project answers a need for additional medical services for an aging Cape Region population.
Fifer urged council to consider other commercial uses in the area. “Granting this rezoning by dropping a heavy commercial use in the midst of a pristine residential area all by itself is not the case,” he said.
He said there are already medical offices and three-story buildings in the area in and around the Villages of Five Points, a residential and commercial complex near the parcel.
“Planning and zoning got it wrong in this case. We all want what is best for Sussex County. That’s for all the residents and not the desires of a select few,” he said. “It’s clear this area is essentially surrounded by mixed-use properties with restaurants, stores, supermarkets and medical offices.”
Planning and zoning commissioners ruled the commercial rezoning was not consistent with other land uses in the area. In making its recommendation for denial, commissioners said the applicant could reapply for a conditional use that would provide greater control over potential use to provide protection for surrounding properties.
Bob Palmer, the developer's engineer for the project, said the developer considered a conditional use but did not want to be nailed down to specific professional offices that could be part of a conditional-use application.
Old Orchard Road traffic
Traffic surfaced as the main concern. Robert Viscount, who lives in East Village of the Villages of Five Points, said traffic counts from the developer’s preliminary traffic impact study and Delaware Department of Transportation officials tell the future of Old Orchard Road.
Viscount said the area is facing a traffic Armageddon on Old Orchard Road with approved commercial projects, subdivisions and two major road projects in the immediate area. He said the average daily traffic volume is 13,000 vehicles, which is higher than Savannah Road with 11,000 vehicles per day.
He said adding 4,500 vehicles from the proposed medical offices and nearly 6,000 vehicles from other projects and subdivisions along New Road, the count would jump to more than 27,000 vehicles per day over the next few years.
In addition, he said, that total does not include additional traffic diverted from the Minos Conaway-Route 1 interchange project tentatively slated to start in 2022, and the realignment of Old Orchard Road and Wescoats Road scheduled to start in 2021. “Deductive reasoning tells you the numbers are going to be big,” he said. “Even without this project, we are getting a tsunami of traffic on a road already at capacity.”
He said his community has already become a cut-through for vehicles bypassing the Savannah Road-Old Orchard Road intersection. “We are considering gating our community because of the volume of traffic,” he said.
“There is a lot of data missing, but the data we have is compelling and in excess of the capacity of the roadway,” Viscount said, adding traffic alone is enough to deny rezoning.
Fifer said everyone is concerned about traffic on Old Orchard Road. “That horse left the barn a long time ago with the development of the Villages of Five Points and other communities in the area,” he said.
More traffic data coming
The developer’s traffic impact study is not complete; it does not include traffic counts for the future Minos Conaway-Route 1 interchange and realignment of Old Orchard Road and Wescoats Road projects. Traffic projections from those projects are expected to be released in mid-February.
The study covered 16 local intersections from Kings Highway to Minos Conaway Road.
Marc Cote, DelDOT’s assistant director of development coordination, said depending on the outcome of the traffic study, the developer may be required to make additional road improvements to Old Orchard Road and provide partial funding for other DelDOT projects in the area.
Opponents also expressed concern with the number of current and proposed entrances in the 100-yard space from the crossover of the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail adjacent to the parcel to Oyster Cove Drive. Viscount said there are three current entrances and the crossover for the trail with the possibility of a second entrance for the Old Orchard Ventures property.
When asked about the entrances by Councilman I.G. Burton, R-Lewes, Cote said they would be evaluated as part of the traffic impact study. He said DelDOT has to allow one entrance for each parcel but other options – such as combined access points – are possible.
Comments on zoning
Jan Allmaras of East Village, who said she represented 60 homeowners in opposition to the rezoning, disagreed with Fifer's assumption that the proposed commercial rezoning was compatible with the area.
Allmaras said the parcel is in the middle of residences with six single-family home communities in the area and one large commercial operation, Atlantic Concrete, which has been in business for decades.
She said most of the medical offices are small and many are located in what were single-family homes.
Allmaras said by granting C-2 zoning, the county loses control over what could be developed under the zoning classification. “It would be out of your hands what kind of traffic and noise would be there,” she said. “We can’t change the C-1 that’s there, but we can look at zoning where we are today,” she said.
In perspective, she said, the project would be larger than the nearby Walgreens at 27,000 square feet and Bayview Medical at 26,000 square feet. “At 50,000 square feet, to say it’s consistent with commercial in the area is absolutely inaccurate,” she said.
Carol Kohler, a member of the Villages of Five Points Property Owners Association, said she represented more than 600 residents opposed to the rezoning.