Home Depot plan stirs talks of boycott

A group of Clarksville residents is about to get some new neighbors.

They’ve accepted the idea that nearly 500 homes will be built in the planned Dove Landing community just inside the corporate limits of Millville. But they’d rather Home Depot officials rethought the idea of putting in a new store adjacent to the development, in their back yards.

Barring that, they had a long list of concerns for Home Depot and Millville officials to address, at an Aug. 3 workshop held by the town.

Tom Gallagher — real estate manager for Home Depot in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia region — began the workshop with a presentation of preliminary plans for the “big-box” hardware store, describing its location (about .75 miles south of Route 26, on Route 17), size (114,000 total square feet, with an 18,000-square-foot garden center) and appearance.

But he was interrupted by one of the many concerned residents who had turned out for the workshop.

“We don’t care what it looks like. We don’t want it,” interjected Townsend Acres resident Whitney Price.

Use by right

Gallagher, recognizing that strong opposition would be voiced at the meeting, responded with equanimity. “It’s already zoned,” he said. “This is a use-by-right.”

The bottom line for those opposed to the planned Home Depot: they can’t stop the project with any sort of zoning appeal. The preliminary plan, as submitted to the town but not yet permitted, meets all town zoning codes and other requirements, such as minimum parking and the building being at least 20 feet from residential structures.

As Gallagher repeated several times during the meeting, with commercial zoning already completed for the recently annexed parcel that will share an entrance off Route 17 with Dove Landing, some sort of commercial use will be going in there.

“If it wasn’t going to be a Home Depot, it would have been another commercial use,” he said.

It’s still technically possible that it could be a use other than a Home Depot, but Gallagher said the company had entered into a contract on the property after market research determined there was a need for a Home Depot in the burgeoning area. They are in the process of obtaining all needed permits from the town, including needed state agency approvals.

Gallagher refused to provide details of a timeline for the project, contract settlement date or contingencies that could affect the deal going through, citing the confidentiality of the contract and the preliminary nature of the project. (Residents labeled that refusal as a stonewalling of their requests for information.)

The nearest stores for the company now are in Rehoboth Beach and Berlin, Md., both with considerable distance and traffic between them and the area’s rapidly increasing number of residents — many of whom are familiar with Home Depot from their prior lives in suburban areas.

Residents fear impact

Having established her opposition, Price aired the basic concerns of her fellow Townsend Acres residents, saying they felt that placing the large store approximately 100 feet behind their residential properties was ill-conceived. She cited a negative impact on their property values, telling Gallagher that multiple Realtors had told her that no one would buy a home so close to Home Depot.

But Gallagher refused to accept the premise of that argument, saying that Centex Homes had decided to develop Dove Landing with plans to build a number of the homes alongside the planned Home Depot site. He further cited the fact that homes were planned and built alongside the Rehoboth Beach store — after the store had been constructed. Those homes had been sold with Home Depot in place, he emphasized.

Moreover, Gallagher said, commercial use such as the Home Depot had been part of the town council’s plan for Millville’s future.

“I knew there was a chance that someday I would have neighbors. I just never dreamed it would be you guys,” Townsend Acres resident George Moran responded. “You guys are a whole ’nother level of commercial.”

There, Price also had bone to pick, reporting first the opinion of state Rep. Gerald Hocker as she said was voiced to her, that neither Home Depot nor any sort of commercial use belonged on the site. (Hocker, notably, owns both hardware and grocery stores nearby. His son, Gerry, is a Millville council member but was absent from the Aug. 3 workshop due to a family emergency.)

Price then noted that while council members might feel the Home Depot was a good thing for the town in that location, that their homes were not alongside the site.

Not in their back yard

It was the tip of the iceberg in a conflict that pits the residents of Townsend Acres — some of whom have lived in that area for 20 years and even constructed their own homes — against the growth-favoring Millville Town Council.

While the town’s development plans strongly affect the lives of neighboring property owners, they are not residents of the town, but rather of unincorporated Sussex County. Thus, they have no vote in Millville and their requests of the town come as those of neighbors rather than constituents.

Still, Millville officials showed no inclination to limit comment at the Aug. 3 workshop to their own citizens. And outgoing Mayor Gary Willey said the town was eager to work with Home Depot officials to find an arrangement that would “make everyone happy.”

Willey additionally requested at the end of the workshop that the Townsend Acres residents — who have formed a group to oppose the project — submit their concerns in writing to the council so that they could be addressed completely.

There was indeed a long list of concerns aired at the workshop itself.

• Noise: “We’re used to getting up and it being quiet,” said Townsend Acres resident Denise Loomis. “Now we’ll be hearing, ‘Assistance needed in the garden center.’”

• Light: Opponents questioned how much light would come from store and parking-lot lighting, during what hours it would be lit, and in what direction it would fall. A more general concern with light pollution’s impact on the night sky was also voiced.

• Deliveries: With delivery trucks (including tractor-trailers) to make multiple daily deliveries to the store, opponents were concerned with the noise of the vehicles, exhaust, traffic and other impacts.

As it stands, the trucks will enter the joint Dove Landing/Home Depot driveway form Route 17, proceed past the expansive parking lot and to the back of the store, where there the store’s loading dock and a turnabout are planned to accommodate them. Lumber deliveries will be received at the opposite, Route 17-facing, end of the store, also at the rear — right behind the Townsend Acres residences.

• Ditch maintenance: As a side concern, opponents said they were already experiencing problems with the tax ditch on the property, which has not been cleaned in years and is known to harbor a substantial mosquito population that raises health concerns, they said. They questioned whether the ditch would be maintained and its flow kept intact (though they said it already needs improvement).

• Trash: Citing trash problems behind other Home Depot stores, opponents questioned whether the store would be willing or able to keep trash from accumulating behind the store and in the ditch.

• Traffic: Opponents questioned how traffic at the joint Dove Landing/Home Depot entrance would be managed. Gallagher noted that the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) had said the commercial users would be required to pay for the cost of any traffic light eventually needed at the location on Route 17 but that they had determined it was not currently needed.

Gallagher said the company itself favored having a traffic light put in but was at DelDOT’s mercy in determining whether that could or would be done.

Room for accomodation

Gallagher provided few concrete solutions to the problems cited by opponents. Challenged on that count, as well as the vagueness of some of his other answers, he emphasized that the purpose of the Millville workshop had been for him to hear and bring community input to Home Depot officials, not for the company to lay out detailed plans for what was still a preliminary project in the permit-seeking stage.

Gallagher did, however, comment on a number of the concerns and possible accommodations suggested at the workshop.

Regarding noise, he acknowledged there could be a problem and promised — as he did with many of the areas of concern — to bring the issue to store officials who could decide what, if any, accommodations could be made.

While the preliminary plan calls for a landscaped treeline to help buffer noise, light and trash from the residential neighbors, Gallagher said he was open to bringing up the idea of an additional small berm to improve such a buffer.

Opponents mentioned the berm that the council had required of the planned Artisan’s Bank site on Route 26, neighboring residential property. “I would hope Millville would extend us the same courtesy,” Townsend Acres resident Brian Aisquith told the council.

Others referenced the large berms bordering the nearby Bear Trap Dunes community in Ocean View, but a project engineer who had also worked on those berms said the 120 feet used to create them was far larger than the area Home Depot had to work with on the Millville property. A smaller berm system might be possible, he acknowledged. And Gallagher appeared to warm to the idea of a tall, noise-dampening fence.

Gallagher said there might also be room for accommodation on lighting, with building lights pointed away from the residences and parking-lot lighting perhaps kept lower to avoid spilling over the top of the building. He said a lighting scheme, as such, had not yet been created for the site.

Delivery hours could be controlled somewhat, Gallagher agreed. But he noted that some suppliers came from far enough outside the area that there might be only limited ability to control what hours they were on the site. He also noted that the lumber delivery area would be involved in regular movement of lumber supplies in and out of the building during hours of operation.

Gallagher said plans had been made to maintain the tax ditch and ensure it remained connected to downstream areas. Town officials also noted that concerns about having the ditch cleaned and sprayed for mosquitoes could be addressed with state authorities — now or in the future.

Councilman Tim Droney responded to the issue of trash, noting that some problems had been experienced at the Millville Town Center since the opening of the Super Giant. Droney said he had been vigilant in keeping an eye on that situation, repeatedly requesting that the trash be cleaned up, and that it had been cleaned up on every such occasion, he said.

Droney said he planned to be just as vigilant regarding the Home Depot, with the town set to hire another code enforcement official to help with the job, and expected the town’s corporate citizens would be responsible about their trash. If for some reason they weren’t, he said, the town would continue to notify them of violations and assess fines until the point was taken.

While general opposition to having the Home Depot at the Route 17 location remained strong and emotional, opponents also looked to a one-step fix for some of the problems, noting that the company appeared determined to build there.

The core of those easier fixes involved somehow rearranging the building and parking area so that the building would be farther from the Townsend Acres properties.

“I’d almost rather have the parking lot in my back yard,” Townsend Acres resident Bruce Sheppard said. Others were inclined to agree. (Sheppard further noted the planned 30-foot-tall water storage tower that will be directly behind the home he built himself 18 years ago and planned to live in for some time to come. He now hopes to sell, he said.)

But Gallagher said that every possible permutation of parking lot, entrance and building had been considered by Home Depot planners. With the same typical store being built by the company in the region and the required setbacks and parking, he said, the only way the store could go on the lot was with its rear to the Townsend Acres lots.

Complicating what might otherwise have been an easier way to rearrange the plan was the fact that Centex Homes and another property owner own all the remaining undeveloped land around the parcel. Opponents suggested Home Depot should look into buying a few of the Dove Landing lots to permit moving the building within the site, or even selecting another site altogether, but Gallagher did not comment.

Changes, restrictions possible

He did say he would be taking all of the community input back to Home Depot officials, to see what might be changed in the plan to assuage the concerns. Additionally, council members accepted the possibility of placing limits on delivery hours, lighting and other elements of store operation that were sources of concern. Those restraints could be part of plan approval when the town issues building permits.

It should be noted that not all of those present at the workshop were opposed to having Home Depot come into the town. Jim Carr, who lives in the area, said that while he understood the concerns and hoped some accommodation could be made for those who would be affected, he had been waiting for something useful to be built. “I happen to think Home Depot is,” he said. Others who had remained quiet nodded in agreement.

However, opponents of the project left the Aug. 3 workshop far from satisfied and vowing to fight on. They planned an organized meeting the following day and suggested individual and group boycotts of the store — when and if it is built — would be in the cards.

But it was with grave humor that several of the Townsend Acres residents offered up to Gallagher and Home Depot the properties upon which they now live, one of them saying all 18 of the adjacent property owners were now eager to sell.