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Dover-Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization urges better uses of rail-adjacent land

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

The Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) released recommendations on Wednesday urging the county’s towns and cities to preserve land along the Delmarva Central Railroad for industrial uses that could spur economic development.

The group hopes to preserve what land remains after years of neglecting the railroad’s potential as a driver of economic development.

Kent Economic Partnership Director Linda Parkowski advocated for a survey of available land along the railroad. She says the county’s two most recent major economic development projects - including a corrugated packaging plant in Dover - were only possible with rail access.

“We have inquiries from companies that are looking for large parcels of land along a rail corridor," she said. "We may not have an opportunity to entertain those companies if we cannot find land along a rail corridor.”

Parkowski alluded to a key finding of the planning office's survey, which noted an increasing number of rail-adjacent parcels developed as housing subdivisions – a trend that could hinder attempts to make use of the rail corridor for economic development. In 2022 alone, two rail-adjacent parcels in Dover were developed into housing, along with one parcel in Milford.

For decades, county and municipal governments have zoned some rail-adjacent land for residential or mixed-use development, and the planning office's recommendations look to rezoning as a valuable opportunity to course-correct. Doing so, says MPO Director Marilyn Smith, requires urgent action on the part of Kent County's municipal governments.

“Once you build houses in particular, those houses are not going to be demolished," she said. "Even though everyone says those houses shouldn’t be here, nobody is going to be the decision-maker and say that we should bulldoze those houses. It just does not happen. Especially during a housing shortage.”

The planning office also recommended that Kent County municipalities consider combining parcels with small sections of rail-adjacent land, making more acreage available for rail sidings or spurs.

But Jim Galvin, the principal planner for the MPO, noted that most municipalities in Kent County give little attention to the railroad in their comprehensive plans. Harrington, which began exploring the possibility of a multimodal freight terminal along the railroad last year, is among the outliers.

"There are some towns that don't want to see commercial uses of the rail," he said. "They're just happy with the small amount of commercial they have along Route 13." Some smaller municipalities, Smith added, do not have the budget or the bandwidth to plan new rail-oriented development.

The MPO's survey and recommendations are confined to Kent County, but Smith noted that the rail corridors in New Castle and Sussex Counties offer the same economic opportunities — and face the same development pressures. In Sussex County, however, a portion of a rail spur connecting the main line to the beach communities has already been replaced by a bicycle and walking path.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.