What’s next for the former Brandywine Country Club in Brandywine Hundred remains up in the air.
Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at what we know and don’t know about it as sn exploratory plan heads before The New Castle County Planning Board Monday.
Nearly six years after the project was first proposed, the planned rezoning of the 111-acre former Brandywine Country Club property to permit construction of apartments and single-family homes is set for its first official hearing by the New Castle County government on Monday.
Shipley Road Investments LLC, a subsidiary of developer Capano Management, wants to build 300 apartments and 65 single-family homes – 41 detached units and 24 attached – on just over 67 acres of the site, bordered by Shipley Road on the east and the Capano-owned Concord Square shopping center along Concord Pike (U.S. 202) on the west.
In a shift from the original proposal, which called for more than 500 homes and apartments, Capano has scrapped plans for a road from Shipley Road through the proposed subdivision and the shopping center to Concord Pike. The nearly 44 acres not dedicated to housing would be donated to the Brandywine School District, which plans to use much of that land to build an early learning center to serve 400 to 500 pre-school children.
Under Capano’s plan, the only access to the new subdivision would be from Concord Pike through Concord Square. Construction of the new roadway would require demolition of one or two storefronts near the center of the shopping center. To replace the lost retail space, Capano wants to build two retail pads, most likely for restaurants, in the parking lot at the northwest corner of the shopping center, where another exit onto Concord Pike would also be created.
The project requires a variety of approvals from the county – a rezoning for the housing, a change in deed restrictions for Concord Square to increase its retail square footage and a variance from the county requirement to have at least two routes in and out of subdivisions with more than 300 housing units.
The county’s Planning Board, an arm of the Land Use Department, will hold a hearing on the proposal on Monday, Sept. 13. Barring complications, that would set the stage for possible Planning Board approval on Oct. 19, followed by a hearing by the County Council’s Land Use Committee on Nov. 2 and a vote by the full council on Nov. 9.
After a rezoning is approved, the developer then submits actual construction plans. The county typically requests several revisions to these plans and the entire process can take “sometimes many months, sometimes years,” says Brad Shockley, the development facilitator overseeing the project for the Land Use Department.
A video preview
More than 100 interested area residents sought an advance look at what the Planning Board will consider by logging onto an online information meeting last week organized by County Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle.
But presenters and questioners during the two-hour session spent less time discussing the central aspects of the proposal – the housing and the shopping center reconfiguration – and focused more on the 44 acres seemingly destined to be deeded to the Brandywine School District. That conversation twisted and turned, with some supporting the school proposal, others worrying about the increased traffic it could generate on Shipley Road, and still others saying area residents would be better served by repurposing the land as a county park.
Caught in the middle was County Councilwoman Dee Durham, the Brandywine Hundred Democrat whose district includes the country club site. Since her election in November 2018, Durham has regularly participated in meetings on the project, advocating to maximize open space while attempting to balance other competing interests.
Durham, in her telling, helped convince Capano to reduce the number of housing units, then received an offer from Capano to dedicate 44 acres as parkland. She said she brought the offer to the attention of County Executive Matt Meyer early last year but he was cool to the idea because of concerns about the expense of maintaining the land. Then, Durham said, she approached Brandywine School District Superintendent Mark Holodick, who expressed a willingness to accept the land as a gift, preserving it as open space, with the possibility of building “a small early learning center” at some future date. Soon after, Holodick left the district for a job at the University of Delaware. Since then, Durham said, the district’s vision for that school has grown from 15 acres to 27 of the 44 that Capano would donate.
As the plan now stands, “I’ve traded 500-plus [housing] units for 360 units and a very large school,” Durham said. “I’m not sure I really accomplished much if that’s what ends up happening.”
Richard Hall, general manager of the Land Use Department, said the county never received a formal offer from Capano to dedicate the 44 acres as parkland. “What is before us now is the acreage for the school,” he said.
And school officials say the 27-acre estimate is high – that the type of building they’d like could probably be built on about 15 acres but they might have to work around 10 or 11 acres that are not suitable for construction.
The school district’s plan
According to Lincoln Hohler, Brandywine superintendent, and Lisa Lawson, assistant superintendent for student supports, the district has received $26 million in the recently passed state bond bill toward construction of the new school. Because the school will serve special education students, the state will pay 100 percent of the construction costs, which are estimated at $49 million, they said.
The early learning center the district is contemplating would serve 400 to 500 children, from birth through age 5, who either have disabilities or who are not enrolled in a preschool program within the district, Lawson said. The district’s existing classrooms for young children with disabilities have been at capacity since 2017 and more than one-quarter of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the district are not enrolled in any public, private or parochial preschool program, she said.
The building would require 75,000 to 80,000 square feet, larger than an elementary or middle school for a similar number of students, because the students’ ages and special needs would require larger hallways, bathrooms within each room, and other amenities, Hohler said. The building’s footprint would be larger because all areas used by children would have to be on one level, he added.
In addition, Hohler said, the district wants to incorporate “wraparound services,” like medical, orthopedic, dental and vision care, at the facility through partnerships with state agencies and providers like Nemours Children’s Health, ChristianaCare and St. Francis Hospital.
“We have the chance to do something unique,” Hohler said.
The district had been looking without success for suitable sites within its boundaries for several years, Lawson said.
In his 30 years in the district, Hohler said he had never seen a site as large as what Capano is offering become available for school use.
And the price – or lack of one, in this case – is an unexpected benefit. “We want free,” Lawson said.
Donating the land has another potential benefit for the developer. State law requires developers to pay something euphemistically called a “voluntary school assessment,” or VSA, when they build housing that is anticipated to result in enrollment increases beyond the current capacity of local schools. Capano’s plan for the country club site could trigger a VSA payment to the school district estimated at $2 million to $3 million, but the value of the donated land could offset much or all of the assessment, school officials said.
Access to the proposed Early Learning Center would be from Shipley Road and while it might not generate as much traffic as a new road linking Shipley to Concord Pike, it is raising concerns about increased traffic on Shipley Road. Since children attending the new facility would range from infants to 5-year-olds, they would not be transported by traditional school buses. Rather, parents would transport their children or the school district would use small vans, Lawson said.
When it was suggested that larger numbers of small vehicles could add to congestion on Shipley Road, Lawson noted that early learning centers typically operate between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., so traffic volume would not increase significantly during rush hours. Also, Hohler said the district would consider incorporating additional driveways into its plans so vehicles would not back up onto Shipley Road.
Participants at the meeting also noted that limiting access to the new community to a single roadway from Concord Pike is subject to the county granting the variance that Capano has requested. Bill Brockenbrough, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation, noted that DelDOT normally requires more than one access route for developments of this size, but would not insist on it if the county grants the variance.
Still shown on the plans is a possible access to the new community through a shopping center fronting on Silverside Road, where the former Chuck E. Cheese entertainment center was located. John Tracey, a land use attorney representing Capano, described this as “a future interconnection point,” but said there are no discussions under way with the shopping center’s owners about making that connection.
Some legal details
As is often the case with a major rezoning, legal details can take on great importance.
Deed restrictions come into play in the Concord Square portion of the project. To create a roadway from Concord Pike into the new subdivision – a road which will be turned over to the state – Capano will have to tear down some retail space. To make up for that loss, Capano wants to put up two building pads elsewhere in the shopping center; the proposed size of those pads would exceed the limits in the current deed restrictions, so Capano is asking to have those restrictions modified.
A similar tug-of-war over the prospective school site is already underway. Area civic associations are pushing to have Capano impose a series of deed restrictions on any land that might be deeded to the school district. The restrictions under consideration, Hohler said, would limit outdoor lighting, evening activities and possibly the size of any construction on the site. The school district can agree to many of the restrictions, but not one that limits construction size, he said.
More importantly, the district does not want to be held to restrictions imposed by a third party. Rather, Hohler said, the district would be willing to write restrictions into the record plan for the site. Promises made on a record plan are legally enforceable, just as deed restrictions are. However, modifying a record plan is easier, because it involves negotiating with the county, not with a third party whose interests might conflict with those of the district.
“We’re not going to pull any sneaky moves, but we don’t know what our needs are going to be 10 years from now,” he said.
Durham, while supportive of the school district’s objectives, is hoping the hearings in the next two months provide a route to increasing open space acreage on the site.
Hartley-Nagle, the county council president, said the public will have opportunities to discuss all aspects of the plan at the upcoming hearings.
Hohler is eager to see a quick resolution. “We’ve got $25 million to start moving forward with the process. When we get started, we’re looking at three years, most likely four [to completion.] If there’s a delay, it’s five or six. For every year that goes by, more kids are not getting the head start that they need.”
“I’m hearing from a wide range of people. There has to be a happy medium somewhere,” Durham says. “I’m trying to reach a compromise that accommodates all of these goals.”