With unanimous vote, council approves Discovery annexation
Hours before vote, opposition group files lawsuit

By Tony E. Windsor

Despite the filing of a lawsuit against the Laurel Town Council by a local group opposed to the development of 500 acres of land northeast of town, the council on Monday moved forward with annexation of the property. The annexation opens the door for development of a major residential, retail and sports complex known as Discovery. A packed council chambers heard the council vote unanimously to both annex the 500 acres and bring it into the town as a Large Parcel Development Overlay. The LPD enables developers of the Discovery Group to construct a complex that includes such features as a 1,400-unit residential complex, three hotels, two stadiums, an equestrian center and more than 1 million square feet of retail space. The project is planned to be built in three or four phases over 12 to 14 years and each phase must be brought back before the town's Planning and Zoning Committee and Mayor and Council for approval. Members of the Sussex County Organization to Limit Development Mistakes (SCOLDM) once again appeared before the council to express their opposition to the Discovery Project. The group, according to its mission statement, was organized "to help limit mistakes in the massive development in Sussex County Delaware and allow the people who make Sussex County their home to have a voice on how development affects their lives." SCOLDM spokesman, W.D. Whaley, said his organization is "disappointed" that the council decided to move forward with annexation of the Discovery property. "As you are probably aware, at about 1:50 p.m. today a lawsuit was filed in court and we are obviously very disappointed by your decision to proceed with the annexation vote this evening," he said. "On our view, your disregard for the laws pertaining to the annexation process is yet another example of your overzealous attitude toward this one development and this one developer." Whaley went on to say that SCOLDM feels confident that the town council is not being responsible in allowing the Discovery Project to move forward as it is being proposed. "Instead of taking the responsibility to grow the town in an efficient, steady and creative way as entrusted to you by the people of this town, you have elected to farm that part of your duties out to a third party," he said. "There is a right way and a wrong way to do these things and we look forward to the court ordering it to be done the right way." According to Whaley, SCOLDM treasurer, John Brohawn, filed the lawsuit in Chancery Court on behalf of the organization. He said the suit cites eight illegal actions by the council in its actions leading up to annexation of the Discovery property. On its Web site, SCOLDM expresses its opposition to the project, saying among other things that "this development is a junk yard of ideas it is thrown together with very little thought to the practicality of real life and no thought to its compatibility with the character of the town of Laurel. "There are legal issues which are being looked into. The petitioner for annexation does not own the properties and the Powers of Attorney were not dated and not notarized as required by state law. Additionally, the tax map numbers do not match on the annexation request and the public notices." These issues were raised at a council meeting in December and town attorney James Waehler said at that time he did not see the cited concerns as "fatal errors" that could halt the annexation. He said issues regarding proper notary support would be corrected in time for the final vote on the annexation and issues about tax map numbers not matching as posted in newspaper public notices was a matter of a typographical error. Waehler said he would investigate and try to determine where the typo may have occurred. However, he added that the public was aware of the location of the Discovery project and the typo is not something that would stop the annexation process. During Monday night's council meeting, Waehler suggested that council members give their individual reasons for voting in support of the annexation and LPD zoning as a matter of public record. One by one, the mayor and six of the council members present expressed their reasons for the unanimous vote. Councilwoman Robin Fisher was absent from the meeting. Mayor John Shwed said the reason for her absence was a family emergency. Councilman William Trujillo said he feels annexing the property is in the best interest of the town and is being done in a way that allows the town to grow and manage that growth. Councilman Don Phillips said the annexation is in the best interest of the community and is a further step in bringing business to the US 13 corridor. Councilman Chris Calio said the annexation was recommended by the town's Planning and Zoning Commission. The land is in the town's designated growth area, he said, and will be a benefit to the citizens of Laurel. He said that as it stands now, the property will contribute $6,000 a year in real estate property taxes and at full growth has a potential of generating more than $5 million in impact and other service fees.

Councilman Randy Lee said he feels the town of Laurel needs to move forward and enlarging and expansion is the way to go. Council president Terry Wright said the annexation is a step in the right direction to add to the town's growth. She also said the town has been involved in the Discovery annexation process for a year and she has learned a great deal during that process. Wright said that she polled her constituents and about "98 percent" advised her that the council "would be foolish" to pass up on the economic opportunity provided by the Discovery Project. "My heart goes out to all the people who have expressed opposition to this project, but I have had to make decisions based on the facts I have learned through this process," Wright said. "I believe this to be the right decision and an educated decision." Mayor Shwed said he would repeat the comments he made during the council's first reading of the annexation in December. During that meeting he presented a two-page statement outlining his reasons for supporting the Discovery Project and supporting the way in which he and the council proceeded with the annexation process. In his statement, Shwed said he feels that he and the council have given all parties sufficient time to state their positions and present recommendations and ideas. "I have read all the articles and editorials in the newspapers, letters, petitions and the infamous Internet blogs," he said. "I have personally discussed this issue with many people, both within and outside the present town boundaries. It is true that Laurel was once a thriving agricultural center and the canning, basket manufacturing and related industries were an integral part of Laurel's history and development. But, where are they now?" Shwed said as mayor of Laurel he has seen firsthand where the town's assets suffer from lack of financial resources. He said residents in Laurel have one of the highest tax rates in Sussex County, so raising taxes to gain revenue is "not an attractive option." "I understand the objections raised by those opposed to the Discovery Project, but as Laurel's mayor I must consider what is best for the majority of the town's 3,800 plus citizens," he said. "I see economic development as the route to break this cycle of insufficient funding and to usher in a new era for the town of Laurel, a new chapter in the proud history of this great community." Shwed said if the Discovery Project developers have met the legal requirements for annexation and zoning, he believes the town should vote to approve the requests with the conditions noted by the town's Planning and Zoning Committee. "I believe property owners have the right to do what is legally allowable with their property," he said. "Conversely, there are those who would like to see open farmland preserved. In my view buying land is an equal opportunity transaction, open to any interested party willing to meet the seller's price." Also Monday night, the council voted unanimously to approve the second and final reading of an ordinance that brings the property housing the Car Store on US 13 into the corporate limits of Laurel. This property was considered by the council as a linchpin in the development of the US 13 corridor and its annexation enabled the Discovery property to be contiguous to the town's limits and eligible for annexation.

Fire department He said the fire district serviced by the LVFD is the largest in the state with 80 square miles of service area. It was determined early on in the strategic plan that the Laurel Fire Department would need to build a substation on the east side of US 13, he said, in order to provide efficient and effective fire service to the fire district located east of Laurel's corporate limits. When it was learned that construction work along Delaware Avenue in Laurel would create a time issue for fire trucks and emergency vehicles to get out to US 13 and over to the east side of US13, the LVFD established a temporary substation on Sycamore Road, east of US 13, which houses a fire truck and emergency equipment. This substation was approved by the State Fire Prevention Committee. Sheridan said there have been instances where the east substation has been a valuable resource for the fire department, including a time when the operation of the Conrail train kept trucks from immediate access to US 13 for a fire call east of Laurel. As part of its strategic plan the LVFD is also planning a second substation to be located west of Laurel in Bethel.

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