Warren concerned over trend around Middletown

Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN, Del. (Jan. 20, 2015) — Farmer Gary Warren is concerned about the amount of farmland in New Castle County that is being converted to housing developments, particularly in the Middletown area.
Warren, past president of the Delaware Farm Bureau, has been at the center of a controversial effort by the county to purchase the development rights of his farm at higher rates than state appraisals.
As Warren drives around Middletown, pointing out housing developments, condominium clusters, million-dollar homes and a 10-acre distribution center, he names the farmers who formerly tilled the land on which they are built. Here and there are farms that have been preserved, safe from the architects and hard hats.
A few are designated as receiving areas for treated wastewater irrigation, including a 900-acre farm the county purchased for that purpose in 2000. The Parkside development next to that property offers houses “from the 300’s” to a million dollars.
Recent annexations by the town have stimulated growth, making Middletown the fastest growing municipality in Delaware. 
On a map, the town outline looks like a crab, with claws stretched out as if to engulf nearby Townsend. According to the 2010 census, the population was about 19,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the population had doubled.
The population is bound to swell again by the next census, if the new homes continue to be sold.
A Whitehall project between Summit Bridge and the Roth Bridge calls for 3,500 homes.
Warren lamented the loss of 1,000 acres of prime farmland there that traditionally had been tilled by Robert, Ed and David Baker.
The Bakers’ land, Warren said, was “some of the best farmland in the county. There’s nothing this land won’t grow.” The soil in the area is mostly Matapeake and Sassafras loam, he said.
Robert Baker, who was along for a recent truck ride past the rapidly growing developments, said his family had sold to developers without trying to preserve the land as a farm because, out of 15 children in the family, there was no one in the next generation interested in farming.
Warren added, “And, the Bakers were told there would never be enough money in agland preservation to preserve land in Middletown.”
Warren said he is concerned that the state seems set on preserving the most land for the least amount of money rather than preserving the best of the remaining tillable land.
Thirty-five years ago, Warren bought his farm on Port Penn Road, including a house built about 1820 where he and his wife raised their two daughters.
“I put the $5,000 down payment on a credit card,” he recalled. “All I ever wanted to do was to have a good farm.”
He sold 100 acres of woods to the state in 1994, he said, “to preserve it in a program that offered the highest protection afforded by law.” Three years later, the area was opened to the public for deer hunting, creating problems for him with trespassers.
Beyond the woods is an area called the “Thousand-Acre Marsh Natural Area,” an expanse of freshwater wetlands known for its proliferation of ducks, rails, bitterns, herons and egrets.
Ideally, Warren would like to see the Thousand-Acre Marsh protected.
He has aerial photos showing the last tract of contiguous tillable lands north of Odessa, including his farm. The photos show just how close those farms are to the Delaware River.
Fifteen years ago, offers started coming in to buy up farms surrounding the Marsh, including the Warrens’. Warren shared a chronology of details involving the potential sale or preservation of his farm.
One offer, dated May 9, 2000, which did not include the Warren farm, was an offer to several neighbors of nearly $12.4 million for 605 contiguous acres on which 900 homes were proposed.
Warren said a nearby 122 acre parcel recently recently sold to developers for $7.225 million, and the owners retained 22 acres along with their home and buildings. Another farm within 2 miles of the Warren farm was purchased by a developer, with settlement in February 2014, for more than $59,000 per acre.
In April 2003, Delaware’s Department of Transportation notified the Warrens that their land was one of the properties along Port Penn Road “in which the state would like to preserve the scenic view.”
A few months later, DelDOT’s then Secretary Nathan Hayward suggested that Warren, instead, should pursue the farmland preservation programs offered by the state.
In June 2004, Toll Brothers offered the Warrens a minimum of $6 million — $50,000 each for at least 120 lots — and the Warrens could keep the house and 15 acres of land. This offer still stands, Warren said.
If the county had not intervened, he said, “I would have settled in March 2007, before the downturn in the market.”
Warren said it was the county which approached him about the potential of a multi-agency collaboration to preserve his land.
County Executive Tom Gordon confirmed that one of the first things he dealt with when he took office was this preservation effort. “I’ve always been involved in ag land preservation,” Gordon said. “We’ve got to preserve the best land that can produce a good harvest. This is precious land, some of the best farmland in the country. We need to be able to grow our own food,” he stressed, citing a rising world population of 9 billion people.
Warren said his property is entitled to sewers “by right” — that all properties in the same zoning district must be treated equally. In October 2007, however, the county denied sewer service to the property. Toll Brothers sued.
The matter was settled in late 2010, with a guarantee of sewers which expires in 2021.
The Warren farm is about a mile from a county-owned force main. The county, at its expense, is required by the settlement agreement to bring a new force main under State Routes 1 and 13 to serve both Warren’s and neighboring landowner Jaymes Lester’s properties at an estimated cost of $3 million.
Warren said, “If my farm goes (to development), every farm on this road goes.”
Gordon agreed. “If the sewer goes in, it will all be developed. These farms are not in the growth areas. This is not where we want to drive growth.”
Yet, after more than a four-year effort to partner with state agencies abruptly failed in the spring of 2014, Gordon said he is continuing efforts to acquire the necessary funds at the federal level to preserve the land.
Warren said, “I gave my word to Gordon that I wouldn’t go forward (with the sale) until he exhausted all avenues.”