Old Mill Landing gets pushback at planning meeting

After a public hearing that lasted more than two hours, the public made their point: they want cautious development of Old Mill Landing North and South — if it’s even approved. Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission is considering two subdivision applications for a total of 227 single-family homes near Dirickson Creek and Bayard. The dual proposed housing developments would flank both sides of Millers Neck Road.

After about three-and-a-half hours of presentations and public comments on Jan. 9, the P&Z Commission deferred action until a later meeting.

When asked who supports the project, about four people raised their hands. When asked for the opposition, dozens of hands went up. The County also received 100 letters of opposition regarding traffic, environment and other developmental concerns.

Ultimately, Old Mill Landing’s application “should be a model for development in the inland bays watershed,” argued attorney James Fuqua Jr. Not only does it fully comply with the county’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances, but it also voluntarily exceeds environmental protections, he said.

The final decision lies with the P&Z Commission, since subdivisions don’t require County Council approval. The Commission is expected to continue discussion and possibly vote at their next regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m. in council chambers at No. 2, The Circle, Georgetown. Although the agenda has not been released yet, Mill Landing North and South could be listed under “Old Business.”

Even if approved, the applicant must go through the same public process again for preliminary and then final site plan approvals.

The application

More than 100 people packed into the meeting room, leaving others to wait in the lobby until folks left and seats became available. Meetings are video broadcast and posted online (https://sussexcountyde.gov/council-chamber-broadcast).

Dirickson Creek wraps around the mostly natural parcel with one mile of shoreline, with the Assawoman Wildlife Area less than one mile away. As proposed, two-thirds of the 184 acres would be open space or wetlands.

Officially, Old Mill Landing North would have 38.1 acres with 71 single-family lots. Old Mill Landing South would have 145.4 acres with 156 single-family lots. They are respectively located on the north and south side of Millers Neck Road (tax map ID: 134-21.00-6.00).

The primary owner is Old Mill Bridge Farm, Inc. The developer is Old Mill Bridge, LLC.

The detailed P&Z packet is online at https://sussexcountyde.gov/planning-zoning-commission (click “Agendas and Minutes” and then the Jan. 9 “Packet”).

Archaeological concerns

“The applicants recognize that we’re developing land with the potential” to show early human activity, Fuqua said. “There’s a responsibility to respect the people who occupied this land previously,” including Native Americans and colonial settlers.

Although any digging or development project stop immediately for the discovery of human remains, the state does not have specific laws about protecting archaeological artifacts found on private land. There are more protections for state land, state projects or projects with federal money.

Archaeologist Ed Otter of Salisbury, Md., is in the middle of his field work, lab work, archival research, and analysis of any archaeological resources that may appear.

“The intent is to understand the sites that are out there,” but Otter suggested that previous and more cursory appraisals were “over-optimistic in identifying some of the sites.” For instance, a ditch crossing is considered human activity, but it’s not terribly significant.

He suggested that pottery and an arrowhead are the most significant finds so far.

“What are the chances you’re going to find a burial site?” asked P&Z Vice Chairperson Kim Hoey Stevenson.

“Burial? Not likely,” Otter said, describing the less-than-ideal soil conditions for preservation.

“So the limit of what you’ve found is limited to this example you’ve brought tonight?” asked Holly Wingate.

“Yes,” Otter said.

Although archival research says this area had an Indian village, Otter does not believe it is on the Old Mill Landing property, based on the descriptions. He has heard that now-lost Indian sites were located across the creek, where children used to hunt for arrowheads. The native people were most likely living there for some period of time. “In the Late Woodland period, we believe they were basically permanent settlers. My interpretation was that they basically had a house,” but would leave for several days to hunt.

The archaeological work is not done, emphasized Fuqua. After the lab work and report are completed, “That report will be sent to SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office]. Also, any artifacts that are recovered will be offered to SHPO, if it wants them. The report will also be made available to any interested parties or representatives or organizations that would want a copy of it. … I wanna stress this is all voluntarily done. It’s not required to be done.”

But resident B.B. Shamp asked the Commission to defer their decision until a more thorough archaeological scan is completed. Not only were the Assateague Indians active in this region, but they carried the bones of their ancestors, to be buried in ossuaries along the way. In her research, she heard that two sites could be eligible for historic preservation. She asked the Commission to intelligently preserve Delaware’s past for future benefit.

Environmental plans

The developer is avoiding the creek and woods, where possible. There will only be one community dock, not multiple individual structures. The clubhouse would be the minimum required 100 feet from the creek. The applicant is hoping Sussex County Land Trust will grant them a conservation easement in undeveloped areas near the creek. The Land Trust would receive a $1,000 contribution for each of the southern 156 lots. Although there will be deforestation, five acres will be replanted with native trees.

Homeowners would be limited in applying fertilizer on their property. Although there would be turf nutrient program for lawn and landscaping/fertilizing activities, application will be determined solely by the homeowner association. This would actually be written in to the deed restrictions, even if the HOA implodes. A title search would actually show the fertilizer restrictions.

“We are going to put enforcement provisions in our documents to the fullest extent of Delaware law allowing our HOA very clear guidance on what happens to ‘Mr. Smith’ if he puts any fertilizer on his property,” said Preston Schell.

The right to own

“The farm’s been in our family over 100 years,” said Greg Warrington of Magnolia, who partly owns the property, in trust. “I know this area well. I’ve seen it change … The Refuge [development] kinda blocked my view. That’s their property,” so that’s their right, he said. So, when his own family was ready to sell their land, they partnered with a developer who “has a proven track record.”

“All I hear is ‘I’ve got mine, you can’t have yours,’” said Jack Tucker, the only nearby resident to support the project. “We can work with the Schell Brothers.”

Tucker accused many of the naysayers of removing their own trees, building docks, driving unsafely on the narrow roads and causing their own disruptions to the local ecosystem. “The Schell Brothers could go and get a timber permit right now,” rather than attempt a responsible construction project.

People question the impacts

Ultimately, most speakers either wanted a complete rejection of the plan, or they wanted more protections before construction began.

The Dirickson Creek Friends do not intend to stop the project, but they spoke in detail about the need for amendments to the preservation: preservation of forest and hydric soils; a full evaluation and preservation of historic sites; a new traffic impact (TIS) study.

Opposition also came from the Southern Sussex Community Action Group (SSCAG), an alliance of housing developments in the Route 20 and 54 area.

“Those 29 communities … went through the same review process that we are going through tonight, and they were approved,” Fuqua said. “All those developments had, and continue to have various impacts on the area environment. … The applicant shares the same goals as the coalition of minimizing the environmental impact of the development… Old Mill Landing will have significantly less environmental impact than many if not all of the 29 existing residential developments.”

With that, he offered to share any relevant information with the coalition, and suggested that someday, Old Mill Landing could be the 30th community to join.

Some people questioned whether the development fit the character of the surrounding community.

They dug into the flooding concerns. Sussex County is already low land, so flooding could worsen at this and surrounding neighborhoods, by removing trees and building over the sponge-like hydric soils that soak up rainwater.

“Yes, we have made the mistake of overbuilding on the southern side of the creek, but now it’s time to” mitigate that, said Anna vonLindenberg. “What about our rights, our property values and our safety? … Sea level rise is happening. FEMA premiums seem to go up every year.”

“I was very impressed with the Schell Brothers presentation … but my primary concern is with the removal of trees,” said Suzanne Bucker, across the creek. “That water is currently sitting on that property … is it going to come over to my property?”

Many people demanded improvements to infrastructure and services before any more construction. They described the “cumulative effect” that more houses will have on existing problems: an overcrowded school system; heavy traffic on narrow roads; long waits for state police in rural areas.

“Just because it’s gratifying to hear that a project meets all the standards,” that doesn’t mean a project has to be built, Greg Kimble said.

Look at the over-development of Ellicot City, Md., which contributed to two severe flash floods, said Ahmed Akhter. Their P&Z Commission were also good people, but, “Nobody looked at the collective: what this will do to the community … These developers individually met every single responsibility,” but what is the impact of them all together?

Traffic always a concern

Many people asked why Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) changed its mind on requiring a new Traffic Impact Study (TIS). But DelDOT’s Marc Coté said they didn’t need a TIS to decide that the road needs to be widened, that curves need to be straightened, or that the developer must pay an “equitable contribution” toward future left-turn lanes or traffic signal around Route 20.

These and other demands will still be included in a TIS letter. Plus, DelDOT has a more sophisticated model to show the impact of a single development on the region’s roadways.

DelDOT instead relied on a 2014/15 TIS for a previously planned project here. But when they subtracted houses that won’t be built and added other developments that are coming, the difference was roughly only 30 homes more.

“We reevaluated what has happened in the past five years,” Coté confirmed. “It’s basically a wash.”

Losing patience during a long night

After an hour or so, comments were becoming repetitive, so Chairman Robert Wheatley insisted that only new ideas be brought forward (as P&Z rules also demand). Some attendees felt slighted by the chairperson’s sometimes-gruff demand that speakers ‘get to the point’ in their comments.

“I’ll do what I have to maintain control,” said Wheatley, reminding the crowd that all written comments will be thoroughly considered, too.

“We have two more hearings to do tonight. And I have to be at work at 5 a.m.,” responded R. Keller Hopkins.

Although the bulk of the audience left around 10:10 p.m., the P&Z Commission still had two more public hearings, plus five more votes to complete before they adjourned close to 11:30 p.m.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter