County creates master plan to address growth, sporadic development south of the canal
MIDDLETOWN — New Castle County is making its first master plan for south of the canal to address the sporadic development patterns and land preservation issues in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend region.
A main focus of the development is in the northwest corner, as it was designated a ”hub growth” area. Rich Hall, general manager for the Land Use Department, said most of the area — referred to as the “upper west wing” — is zoned for residential development, with some allowed for mixed-use, such retail, office buildings or homes.
“Southern New Castle County has been a fast growing rural, semi-rural area for a while,” he said. “We are hoping to add a little more discipline and definition to the area."
But what exactly will be built in the area remains vague.
County Councilman Dave Carter, who represents much of the Middletown area, wants more clarity for his constituents. He feels there are too many unknowns in terms of how much housing development will occur near existing communities.
“When my communities ask me, ‘What is possible in the corn field next to me,’ I have to say, 'Well it could be anything from one house every 4 acres to 12 houses per acre.’ It's a pretty wide margin,” the councilman said.
Hall said he knows the zoning allows for many different kinds of housing development to happen. He said the county is still trying to figure out how much detail is appropriate.
“How specific the plan recommendations are on this issue as well,” he said. “We are not going to write a zoning plan, but we don't want to be vague either,” Hall said.
Reactions at public workshops
County officials started planning two years ago, and have had multiple public workshops in-person and virtual during this time to get recommendations. At the most recent virtual meeting in September, residents seemed most concerned with the planned sewer for areas where there are septic tanks in the upper west wing — a sign that more residential development is planned or expected in the area.
But Hall said this isn’t a new issue. Sewer has been planned in the area since 2013, and the master plan actually cuts half of what was expected south of the canal seven years ago. Nearly all the planned sewer area on the east side of the region has now been designated for land preservation, meaning no significant development will occur.
“What we are trying to do is move [sewer plans] from where it doesn't make sense, where there is lots of preserved land. The market will go to the west side anyway. There are many official and unofficial developments that we see planned over there,” Hall said.
With more residential development expected in the upper west wing, Carter has been concerned with more homes but no services — grocery stores or gas stations — to support them, like the communities of Whitehall and Bayberry, which he calls “suburban outposts.”
“If you are going to have a similar community character, do we really want considerably higher density in the middle of nowhere, miles from a grocery store, miles from a gas station, with no public transportation at all? Do we want that kind of density out there, or do we want to put [residential development] in areas closer to services,” the councilman said.
Hall said they want to see houses built more compactly, but not necessarily in a high-density development.
“What we prefer not to see out there is a lot of farmland converted to a scattering of single-family residential developments that are scattered here and there, consuming a lot of land in an inefficient manner on septic systems,” he said.
‘Lack of clarity and collaboration’
Carter gave what he called “pretty strong comments” to Hall and the Land Use Department in December about the lack of clarity and collaboration with the municipalities they are planning for. Since then, he said the plan has improved, but it still needs more definitive plans.
“The county staff has this discretionary power where decisions are being made without providing much detail upfront to the community and I feel like that should be worked out first.”
Middletown, Townsend and northern Smyrna were each designated as a “Town Infill,” meaning the municipalities have had vacant land within city limits that have been passed over for development. The county wants to develop in these areas to bring in more commercial and retail services that are consistent with the growth in each of the communities
The Southern New Castle County Master Plan is a subsection of the countywide master plan that is required by the state to be updated every 10 years. Hall said the county started drafting that plan earlier this year.
Although the county will stop taking public recommendations this month, the plan will likely not be finalized for another six months because of the lengthy legislative process needed for adoption.
Carter said he wouldn’t be surprised if the plan ends up in front of the council before the end of October. He is looking for more details in the master plan before he would vote to approve it.
Councilman Bill Bell, who represents much of the east side of the region, did not respond to emails or phone calls for comment on his views of the plan.
Residents can submit comments to NCC2050@newcastlede.gov until Oct. 12.