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New Castle County ordinance would rezone 87 parcels, Port Penn residents gather to oppose

Nearly 300 people packed the Port Penn Fire Hall Thursday night to oppose a New Castle County Council blanket rezoning ordinance.
Rachel Sawicki
Delaware Public Media
Nearly 300 people packed the Port Penn Fire Hall Thursday night to oppose a New Castle County Council blanket rezoning ordinance.

A New Castle County ordinance proposing to rezone 87 parcels across the county is receiving pushback from Port Penn residents.

Nearly 300 people came to the Port Penn Fire Hall Thursday night to voice their opposition, particularly concerning two parcels just south of the C&D canal – Lighthouse Farms and Union Carbide, that would go from suburban to business park. They worry that opens the door to developing warehouse complexes without traffic studies, public hearings, and the normal land use process.

The ordinance from Council members Janet Kilpatrick and Dave Tackett proposes to rezone 87 parcels. Kilpatrick says according to state code, once the county passes its comprehensive plan, it has 18 months to amend its official zoning map in accordance with the future land use map.

“So we could have brought 87 of these up and discussed every single one of them, or we can do it this way,” Kilpatrick said. “And the original choice was to do it this way.”

But those in the Port Penn area who are opposed, like Dale Swain, say discussing individual parcels is what they want.

“The idea of trying to run this through as an ordinance with 87 properties, not follow all the processes they’re supposed to, and just say magically these are now rezoned, that is just wrong,” Swain said.

Swain and others gathered in the fire hall Thursday night want to kill the ordinance before a vote, but Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle says she’s not sure if the ordinance itself would even stand up in court.

“I immediately thought this was not legal,” she said. “What the heck are they doing? 87 parcels being zoned in one vote? That doesn’t make sense. That eliminates the possibility for all of my constituents throughout the county, our constituents, to have a voice in each and every one of them like we normally do. Everyone goes through separately. It first goes through committee and then it will go through the council meeting. And you know I’ll keep you there all night. Everyone gets to speak.”

Hartley-Nagle adds she is seeking a legal opinion from the state on whether they can pull the ordinance and amend the comprehensive plan.

“I’m not getting a definitive answer out of my land use department that makes sense to me,” Hartley-Nagle said. “So if they’re saying it’s the state, let's get a legal opinion from the state.”

Hartley-Nagle says the New Castle County Land Use Department told her the comprehensive plan could no longer be amended but points to the state code that says the county can amend the plan with a simple majority of the council voting to do so.

Department of Land Use General Manager Charuni Patibanda spoke at the meeting, explaining to residents that the department sought input from the public when they were creating the new comprehensive plan. But several residents say they never knew about it, and questioned the efficiency of the department and the county’s outreach efforts.

County Councilman Dave Carter says the larger issue is a disconnect between what residents want and the new comprehensive plan.

“Everything you are hearing tonight are things we heard through a two-year process that for whatever reason weren’t really dealt with very effectively,” Carter said. “So this is, in my view, a symptom of a bad planning process that I think we need to try and get corrected.”

He adds that he doesn’t think the community south of the canal gets enough representation.

“I sometimes feel like we have a very different community south of the canal,” Carter said. “North of the canal is much more organized and there is a real urban bias in our planning. There doesn’t seem to be a cultural competency within our county planning office to deal with a rural community or an ex-urban type of community, we just haven’t really been able to crack that.”

If it’s not pulled, Council is expected to vote on the ordinance in January.

The local opposition group led by Swain has only existed for a couple of weeks and has already sent many letters to County Council and Land Use, along with gathering over 1,000 signatures on their petition and over 350 followers on their Facebook group: Ordinance 23-083.

Rachel Sawicki was born and raised in Camden, Delaware and attended the Caesar Rodney School District. They graduated from the University of Delaware in 2021 with a double degree in Communications and English and as a leader in the Student Television Network, WVUD and The Review.