Sussex braces for showdown between farmers, developers

Staff Writer

MILTON, Del. (Sept. 8, 2015) — Wally Goff said he has trouble imagining a future where a proposed 114-acre commercial development right across the highway from where he sits happily co-exists with the long-established farms surrounding it.
Will it work smoothly when farmers drive a convoy of combines and farming equipment through the shopping center when they need to move from field to field?
What about the local crop duster who sprays those farms? That will likely end for sure, he said.
But at the same time, Goff, a local farmer and owner of Dawn’s Country Market, said he’s a defender of personal property rights. A man owns the land across the street, and if he wants to sell it to get what he can, and the buyer wants to legally develop it, who has the right to tell them no?
Goff’s conflicted.
“Your right to swing your arms stops at the other fella’s nose,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair outside the store last week.
The future of farming is once again at the center of a development dispute in rural Delaware.
This time, it’s a Maryland developer — Trout Daniel & Associates in Timonium — seeking to rezone a 114-acre plot on the east side of Coastal Highway at Cave Neck Road from agricultural-residential to commercial so it can purchase the land and build a shopping center with more than 800,000 square feet of retail space and 4,000 parking spaces.
It would be the largest commercial development in Sussex County, nearly as large as Dover Mall.
Hundreds of local residents have protested the rezoning. Few have publicly supported it, and the agricultural aspects of the dispute received more publicity late last month after a letter from state agriculture Secretary Ed Kee — written months ago as part of a state review process — reached the public.
Kee’s letter said a shopping center that large would make it more difficult to farm land east of the highway and probably force some to abandon the industry.
It would also prohibit farming practices used in that area currently, including aerial pesticide and seed application, the letter said.
Some nearby farmers said they agree.
“It’s just going to devastate Sussex County altogether,” said Kenny Hopkins, whose driveway cuts through the center of the proposed development.
Were it built, Hopkins’ farmhouse would sit behind it. He can check off the issues in his head. He rents his farmland out and said he doesn’t see how it will be possible to easily move combines, tractors, sprayers and the like through the shopping center when necessary.
He brings duck hunters onto his property and trembles at the thought of someone’s errant buckshot raining down on the parking lot.
And he worries about the health of the nearby Great Marsh Preserve. It’s a wildlife habitat and ecosystem unique to the East Coast, he said.
Not to mention what the commercial tenants will think of the farming activity.
“They’re going to be on us like crazy for the dust,” he said. “If you’re spreading poultry litter. You’re not going to be able to do that. … It’s just going to change the whole way of farming.”
The property owner is listed in state records as Overbrook Acres LLC, registered in 2009 in Hanover, Va. Louis DiBitonto, a development principal with Trout, declined to discuss the proposal.
The land is likely to be developed no matter what, said Sam Wilson Jr., the county council’s vice president. If the rezoning fails, it’s still zoned agricultural-residential, he said, which allows for two units per acre.
That’s 228 homes, he said, questioning whether that’s preferable to the shopping center.
“I really don’t see the difference,” he said. “I’m not thrilled to see any of it developed. I think we got all the traffic we need. But the thing is, people still have rights to their property. … One way or another, the land is covered. It’s gone.”
But the difference between the shopping center and homes is huge, Kee said.
“I do see a substantive difference with parking for hundreds of cars, the traffic impact,” he said. “I just think a major shopping center is a very different critter than a housing development.”
Many residents, for instance, are already upset about the increased traffic, which is perpetually snarled in summer months as beachgoers flock to the seaside community.
The neighboring Lewes City Council joined the opposition in July, reportedly voting to oppose the rezoning.
A 30-day period created by the county council to hear resident complaints ended last week. As of press time, it had not scheduled a vote on the rezoning.
Nonetheless, a new, massive shopping center wouldn’t seem out of place in this community.
It’s a rapidly changing area where long stretches of farmland are interrupted by gleaming, white housing developments with fresh pavement.
But those developments have also brought a different kind of resident to Sussex County, Goff said. Many of them have business, professional, even legal backgrounds, and they’re more well-versed in development issues than the smaller number of farmers who used to have the region to themselves.
“I still think of us as dumb farmers,” he said. “But (residents) put up a good fight.”
He said he thinks they might be able to kill the rezoning. But it wouldn’t surprise him if the development is eventually approved.
“I have seen a lot of things go through that I never thought could go through,” he said.