If two Wilmington dentists and their oral surgeon partner have their way, 33 acres of undeveloped land off Route 20 could become home to medical facility designed to house multiple medical specialties, an imaging center and an acute-care facility — something many in the area have been hoping would be part of its near future, as the population of eastern Sussex County continues to “go grey.”
PMP Associates LLC of Wilmington — comprising Drs. Mark and Paul Brown and Dr. Peter Subach, and represented by attorney Jim Fuqua — went before the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday, Oct. 25, requesting a conditional use for two roughly 16.8-acre residential parcels on the south side of Zion Church Road (Route 20) just west of Bayard Road, between Roxana and Route 54.
At the nearby intersection of Routes 54 and 20, the Bayside community and neighboring developments hold a wealth of potential patients who might prefer not to drive to Lewes, or to Berlin or Salisbury, Md., for medical treatment.
The front half of the property would be used for 102,000 square feet of space in six medical office buildings, while the rear portion — primarily wetlands — would be preserved in its natural state, with a 50-foot landscaped buffer dividing it from the commercial use.
The conditional use request came accompanied by numerous statements of support for the Thursday public hearing, with local developers Bay20 stating that they were “aware that there are few medical facilities in the area” and that they had reviewed the application and supported it.
Tom Halverstadt, senior vice president of Carl M. Freeman Companies, which developed Bayside, said he had also reviewed the application and expected that it could certainly attract multi-specialty medical practices, a service center and acute-care facility, and that he supported the medical project.
Twin Cedars LLC, owners of the nearby Twin Cedars apartments, also contributed their support, saying that the facilities are “desperately needed” and “would be a wonderful addition” to the area.
Lawrence Long of Roxana, part of EH & ME Long, which owns adjacent property also stated his support of the plans. “We realized development is coming to the area,” he said, citing the major road, central water and sewer. “It was zoned GR long before the state planning commission looked at this growth.”
“It’s refreshing to see it is going to be what it’s going to be and not just another residential development, and that they’re going to preserve the woodlands behind it,” Long added.
Dennis Smith, who owns property across from it on Route 20, told commissioners, “I’m all for it.”
Fuqua told commissioners on Oct. 25 that the project was one that met the very definition of the county ordinance that allows a conditional use: of public or semi-public character and desirable for the welfare of residents of the area.
“Residents in the area have been increasing significantly over the last few years,” Fuqua said, noting the proposed facility’s location two miles north of the Route 54/20 intersection with Bayside right at that location. “Route 54 has been extensively developed, and there are many residential developments within 3 miles of the site,” he added.
In addition to Bayside, the Brandywine Assisted Living Center is being built on Route 20 now. Originally planned as part of Bayside, the facility is now to be operated as a separate entity but will still bring a number of people to live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed medical facility who would likely make use of its convenient location.
Growth pushes need for medical services in area
“Development is moving to the north on Route 20,” Fuqua continued, noting another proposal for residential development to the east of the property that has not been presented to county yet, in addition to the Woods at Johnson’s Corner and planned redevelopment of the Twin Cedars apartments for residential property.
Fuqua acknowledged that the property is in one of the state’s Level 4 infrastructure areas, where state government seeks to avoid supporting new infrastructure and growth.
“I would ask that you consider that that designation predates the reality of growth that has occurred and continues to occur in this area,” Fuqua told the commissioners last Thursday.
He pointed to the recent approval of the Johnson’s Corner sewer district by a July referendum on a 3-to-1 ratio and noted plans to designate it as a growth area in the revised county land-use map in the 2008 comprehensive plan update, based on that expanded county sewer district.
But the bottom line for much of the presentation was the need for medical facilities in the booming retirement environment of eastern Sussex.
“There’s a strong need for healthcare and medical services in this area,” Fuqua said. “That’s particularly true because ... many of the new residents are older residents, second-home owners, retirees. And that’s recognized in the land-use plan, both the current plan and the draft.”
Fuqua also noted the special needs of older residents. “They do not believe they can get adequate services currently in this area. They have to go to Beebe and Peninsula for services,” he said. ““This facility would be nearby and convenient. It would make the drive to Lewes or Salisbury unnecessary. And as we all know, that drive in the summer months can be both difficult and time-consuming.”
Fuqua said the PMP facility would offer more than traditional doctors’ offices, but exactly what kind of services would be offered there would depend on market factors, such as who would eventually choose to locate there.
“Their intent is to have not only physicians’ offices for different specialties but also other types of services,” he said, noting outpatient services, an imaging center, physical therapy and rehabilitation services, perhaps a sleep center, outpatient surgery practice, pain management clinic, cardio lab, and possibly a medical aid unit for non-life-threatening needs.
Fuqua said practitioners moving into the facility would be Medicare-certified and licensed by the state where required.
In addition to county sewer service being provided and central water from Artisian, Fuqua said PMP had already become part of a memorandum of understanding with other area developers to contribute sewer construction in the area, with a water main already in place at the site.
Fire service would be provided by the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company, and the buildings would all have sprinkler systems.
Improvements and preservation planned
The Delaware Department of Transportation has already accepted a traffic impact study performed for the facility, with an approval letter issued and agreements between PMP and DelDOT for improvements to be made in the area at PMP’s expense.
Those improvements would include a traffic signal and pedestrian improvements agreement for Route 20 at the site access, as well as Route 20 and Johnson’s Corner Road/Bayard Road, and easement improvements at the site.
A drainage ditch at the front of the property is planned to be relocated and mitigated, with plans for that change submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for final approval, which was anticipated within the month.
The planned 50-foot buffer from the wetlands at the rear of the property is not required, Fuqua noted, but will still be built as part of the plan. Animal habitat in the naturalized area of the property is also slated not to be disturbed. Plans call for removing a very small number of trees from a very large stand of contiguous trees to make way for the fifth and sixth buildings, Fuqua said, saying the number was less than 3 percent.
Fuqua also noted on Oct. 25 that PMP had endeavored to use a site layout recommended in the community design elements of the county’s draft comprehensive plan update, with native landscaping, street-lighting, sidewalks and a pedestrian orientation. Altering the initial plans for the site, they had removed parking from the front of one building, and pitched roofs are planned to provide varied rooflines.
There will be a single entrance to the facility from Route 20, with deceleration and acceleration lanes. Landscaping will be done at the entrance and on all borders. Extensive sidewalks are planned to connect the six buildings, with 515 parking spaces (above the 450 required) also on the plan.
Lighting will be focused down on parking areas, while trash receptacle areas will landscaped and screened. Fuqua said PMP could also incorporate a bus stop if becomes available.
The entire plan, he said, envisioned a “campus-like” setting that is pedestrian-friendly, with places outside to sit on benches and picnic areas for the use of clients and employees. No smoking will be permitted.
Stormwater management will be a combination of bio-filtration swales, strips and stormwater basins.
Heli-pad could be included for emergency transport
Also a unique feature of the plan is a proposed helicopter pad, which Fuqua said was not so much planned for actual use in the initial plan but rather “earmarked” so that no wires would be located in an area where helicopter access might be desired.
Fuqua said the landing area would be useful in case someone at the facility needed to be removed by helicopter, or that state police and other emergency airlift agencies could use it as needed.
Planning Director Lawrence Lank noted on Oct. 25 that a helicopter pad would require a separate conditional use approval from the county, and commissioners encouraged PMP to seek that conditional use, saying it sounded like a good idea.
Fuqua noted that current plans for the facility look for slow growth, building one building of the six planned at a time, phasing the facility according to market conditions and demand. Each suite would be customized to the user, he said. The whole would be set up as condominium, with offices sold to a physician facility, or rented to them if they preferred. A condominium association would be created, with dues and providing for maintenance of common areas.
Hours for the facility would be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fuqua said, with the possibility of some longer hours, such as 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., for particular offices. An exception to that would be the proposed medical aid unit, which in the summertime could be open 24 hours.
At full operation of all the space, Fuqua said, some 200 to 250 permanent medical-related jobs could be created in the area, with an economic benefit to county in taxes, sewer fees and more.
In response to questions from commissioners, Fuqua said PMP planned a sign for the complex at the entrance, with board signs at each building. Commissioners also reminded the Browns that no further development of the site, beyond the approved plan, could be done without a re-hearing.
Fuqua said there would be security for the facility, in addition to normal procedures for securing any prescription drugs located on-site.
Commissioner Benjamin Gordy asked Fuqua how PMP would determine if the medical aid center would needed. “It would seem it’s needed right away,” he said.
“There is a perception that it is needed and we’ve had some interest expressed in providing that type of facility in the area,” Fuqua said, adding that his clients had determined that the facility is needed in that area and that there will be someone interested in providing medical aid in the area.
Fuqua said that, as his clients are dentists and an oral surgeon, it was likely that dental offices would be the first tenants of the new facility. He also said there might be a call for other types of professionals to use the space and asked that that possibility be included in a conditional-use approval.
There was no opposition presented to the plan at the Oct. 25 hearing.