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Development plan for old Brandywine Country Club approved, but battle looms over proposed early education center

Delaware Public Media

A plan to develop the former Brandywine Country Club in Brandywine Hundred is finally gets the green light from New Castle County.

But don’t expect the proposed mix of apartments, single-family homes, and townhouses to start popping up right away.

And contributor Larry Nagengast reports issues remain about the Brandywine School District’s proposed early education center at the site.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the latest progress on redeveloping the former Brandywine Country Club.

After seven years of plan revisions and negotiations, developer Louis Capano III has finally gained approval to build apartments, single-family homes and townhouses on the site of the former Brandywine Country Club.

But the June 28 approval by the New Castle County Council does not mean construction is imminent. Nor does it mean that all the issues concerning the future use of the entire 110-acre site have been resolved.

As a result of the council’s 11-0 vote (with one member absent and Councilwoman Dee Durham, the actual sponsor of the rezoning, voting “present”), Capano – actually Shipley Road Investments LLC, the subsidiary that owns the land – will be able to build 300 apartments, 41 single-family homes and 24 townhouses on the site. Access to the apartment complex will be from a new road to be built through the Capano-owned Concord Square shopping center on Concord Pike, after a portion of the shopping center is torn down to make way for the road. Access to the single-family homes and townhouses will be from Shipley Road.

Due to an administrative oversight, one final approval, pretty much a formality, remains. The council must approve a change to deed restrictions for the shopping center to permit Capano to build two retail pads to replace the retail areas that would be demolished. A vote is scheduled for Tuesday, July 12.

In a concession to area residents, represented through the negotiations by the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred (CCOBH), there will not be a connector road through the new community linking Shipley Road and Concord Pike, but there will be pedestrian and bicycle paths from the shopping center through the apartments and homes to Shipley Road.

Delaware Public Media
A portion of the Concord Square Shopping Center will be torn down to create a road to apartments planned at the old Brandywine Country Club site

As part of the deal, Capano has promised to donate 44 acres of the country club site to the Brandywine School District, which hopes to build an enlarged version of its Bush Early Learning Center there, with the potential to serve as many as 500 preschoolers and special needs children. The state is picking up the full construction cost of the new school because it would serve children from more than one district. The state has already committed $35 million to the project -- $25 million in last year's Bond Bill and another $10 million in the Bond Bill signed into law two weeks ago.

Construction of the homes and apartments won’t begin for a while because Capano must first file subdivision and record plans with the county and have them approved by the council. John Tracey, Capano’s land use attorney, says he hopes that process can be completed in about a year. R.J. Miles, the CCOBH president, says it could take 18 months to two years for those plans to be approved.

Until then, Tracey says, the acreage intended for the school district will remain in the developer’s possession.

And that’s where more significant debate is anticipated.

Up to now, the school issue has been the proverbial elephant in the room, a topic of considerable discussion but with no direct bearing on the rezoning matter, Rather, stakeholders in the debate focused largely on the number of housing units (Capano’s original plan had 563 units, including 408 apartments) and concerns over the possible connector road between Shipley Road and Concord Pike. The final version of the rezoning proposal included many elements of compromise.

When the council’s Land Use Committee discussed the rezoning on June 21, Durham stated: “We’re at the position where, as the saying goes, if no one is happy, we’re probably in the right place.”

In praising Capano’s willingness to acknowledge the interests of community organizations, Miles said “we think this is a good representation of when a process works well.”

As the council prepared to vote on the rezoning, Council President Karen Hartley Nagle compared the current mood to what she experienced last year, when council considered a version of the plan that included the connector road. “I have not received one email or text…. Prior to this I had received hundreds…. People are not unhappy enough to let me know they don’t want me to vote on this.”

“We’re at the position where, as the saying goes, if no one is happy, we’re probably in the right place.”
New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham

Just before the roll was called for the vote, Councilman Jea Street, Wilmington Democrat, punctured the convivial air that had dominated the discussion and signaled that the school issue will remain a subject of controversy.

“While y’all are singing Kumbaya, everybody ain’t happy,” he said. “I play hard and I try to play fair. I’m completely P.O.-ed with the plan of the school district, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what the developer did. Forty-four acres – he’s giving away a lot of land, giving away a lot of money. That’s not to be taken lightly. It would be fundamentally unfair to take my concern about the school district out on the developer.”

There are two issues associated with the 44 acres to be donated to the school district – an open space issue that is the primary concern of Durham and CCOBH, and an education equity issue that is Street’s primary concern.

While Durham was pleased with Capano’s willingness to negotiate with the community, she explained that she was voting “present” rather than “yes” on the rezoning because she campaigned against overdevelopment when she ran for council four years ago and had hoped to preserve more of the former golf course as open space that the community could use. As part of the final negotiations over the rezoning, Capano’s team said that the school district had agreed to set aside 10 of the 44 acres to be donated as open space, either active or passive, for community use.

Until recently, the school district had said it would be opposed to any deed restrictions on the property, saying that could restrict its future use of the land. Capano’s team said the 10 acres would be set aside through either deed restrictions or a conservation easement, but those details won’t be ironed out until Capano files final plans with the county and turns the land over to the school district. Lincoln Hohler, Brandywine’s superintendent, said school officials will discuss that matter with Capano before the land is deeded to the district. “The vast majority of the property will remain open,” he said.

“Our job going forward is to be fierce advocates for those 10 acres … that it is open space of consequence, not something buried in a corner, something the community can be proud of,” Miles said in an interview after the vote. While he was careful not to criticize the school district during the public meetings, Miles changed his tune during the interview. Citing the district’s reluctance to make commitments on open space and future uses of the donated acreage, he said “the polite way is to say they were not a cooperative and amenable counterparty…. They threw the community under the bus.”

Street’s educational equity issue is more complex.

He has directed his anger at the school district for encouraging suburban school parents to communicate their support of the rezoning because of the prospect of donated land without reaching out to the families whose children would most likely comprise a substantial portion of the school’s enrollment – residents of the 19802 ZIP Code in Wilmington and adjacent suburban areas.

“While y’all are singing Kumbaya, everybody ain’t happy, I play hard and I try to play fair. I’m completely P.O.-ed with the plan of the school district, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what the developer did. Forty-four acres – he’s giving away a lot of land, giving away a lot of money. That’s not to be taken lightly."
New Castle County Councilman Jea Street

Street, a veteran of education equity battles dating back to the school desegregation court case in the 1970s and the longtime executive director of the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center on Wilmington’s West Side, said he approves the idea of placing a school on the donated land, but not one like the early education center the district is planning.

Going back to the start of city-suburb busing for desegregation in 1978, he says, one guiding principle was that kindergarten students would remain in the schools closest to their homes, and not be subject to busing. “There was universal agreement [that it was] too far for them to go out of the city or into the city,” he says.

By placing Wilmington children in kindergarten and preschool in a suburban school, Street says, Brandywine would be violating not only that principle but also the state’s Neighborhood Schools Act, passed in 2000, which dramatically reduced the number of students bused between city and suburbs.

“What has changed?” Street asks, wondering how circumstances today could make it more reasonable to bus the youngest city children to the suburbs than 40 years ago.

Also, he notes, sending city preschoolers and kindergartners to a suburban school could run afoul of the terms of the settlement of school finance litigation signed two years ago. Street, as a member of Delawareans for Educational Opportunity, was a plaintiff in that case. The settlement requires that at least half of the new seats created by the additional funding pledged in the settlement be allocated to community-based programs not associated with school districts – to agencies like Hilltop, the Latin American Community Center, the Kingswood Community Center and the Ministry of Caring.

“We do it better,” Street says. “Kingswood is the best example. They’ve been doing it for 50 years.”

The issues related to the proposed early learning center could be discussed in more than one forum.

To build the school, Brandywine will have to go through the same rezoning process that Capano followed for the residential project. Issues related to the size of the school (the district is talking about 80,000 square feet), the traffic it would generate and the location and use of the dedicated open space would typically be part of the county’s land use analysis.

Brandywine knows the features it wants to include in the new building and has begun working with an architect, but there aren’t any drawings yet of what the school would look like. The district’s goal, Hohler says, is to have its plans ready to file with the county as soon as possible after taking title to the 44 acres.

He did say that, because it would house preschoolers and special-needs children, the building would have wider hallways and larger classrooms than a typical elementary school. The district would like to include a therapy pool and spaces to provide “wraparound services” like orthopedics, audiology and optometry.

Hohler also said that some of the estimated 500 children the center would serve would not be in the building five days a week. “That number includes 1-year-olds who might come in with a parent twice a week for a one-hour play session,” he said.

Hohler said it is too early to estimate how many of the children at the center would be Brandywine residents and how many might come from other districts. He said the district is aiming for one-third of the children to have special needs and for the other two-thirds to be considered “typical peers.”

The county, however, has no role in evaluating education concerns.

To address those issues, Street says he will communicate with the Brandywine Board of Education and possibly the State Board of Education. Hohler said that district officials would like to meet with Street to discuss his concerns.

Street also said that where Wilmington preschoolers and kindergartners are placed would be an appropriate issue for the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, a new partnership among the Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay districts to manage K-8 education programs in the city. Pending approvals by those three school boards, the collaborative is expected to begin a planning year in about two months.

Hohler said it is premature to discuss whether the collaborative should consider plans for the center because Brandywine still hasn’t voted on whether to join the collaborative.

Noting his experience with education litigation since the late 1970s, Street says he wouldn’t be surprised if this “will have to be decided by a judge or judges.” But, he adds, “this shouldn’t be necessary.”

Hohler hopes the equity concerns raised by Street can be resolved amicably. “We still want to get together,” he says.

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.