This is the second of two posts by Ken Hemphill, the founder of the Beaver Valley Preservation Alliance.
When developers and their associates give money to elected officials, do they not expect something in return? Why else would they donate to an elected official? Of course they want rezoning, quicker approvals, variances granted, and a greased path to larger profits. Most importantly, perhaps, they expect the recipients of their largess to promote over development from their bully pulpits in a way that makes increased housing and traffic density sound like a good thing for the community.
There is probably no better example in New Castle County of a local politician smoothing the way for developers than Bob Weiner. You wouldn’t know this to listen to his oft made claims that he doesn’t take money from them. You certainly wouldn’t know this to see how he preens himself as a conservation candidate despite his almost automatic support for rezoning and over development.
He’s claimed on Facebook, on his website, in public speeches, in a candidate forum with Dee Durham, and on a candidate questionnaire for Save the Valley that “he does not take money from developers and/or their associates.” Mr. Weiner must think his constituents don’t own a computer or that only a forensic accountant could uncover his developer connections. It only takes a simple search on Delaware’s campaign finance website to see that he’s taken substantial donations from developers and their associates. We added up the contributions from “developers’ teams” on just two recent campaign finance reports and arrived at a sum of more than $10,000. This came from developers’ spouses, developers’ attorneys and law firms, construction engineers and their firms, architects, and others connected to developers. Why so many people and not a big check from one source? Having a group send donations is one way of getting around maximum contribution limits and to mask how much is being given by any particular developer.
THE REZONING BONANZA
Rezoning should be a rarely exercised option but for Bob Weiner it has been the norm that’s helped developers rake in a fortune.
Among others things, developers got Mr. Weiner’s support for rezoning the Cavaliers County Club (700 housing units instead of 200), the deciding vote to approve the vast rezoning of Barley Mill Plaza, and early advocacy from Weiner on WDEL in 2015 for rezoning the Brandywine Country Club for high density residential use instead of 150 houses. They got his approval for the huge residential development on Route 202 at the PA state line where Frank McKee shoehorned 190 townhouses onto a 45 acre parcel on land. They got rezoning for Wagoners Row along a scenic byway, taking campaign contributions from the landowners along the way (the Carpenter family). More than these specific rezoning cases, developers must be thrilled to hear Mr. Weiner talking favorably about “new urbanism,” and “walkable communities where you can live, work, play, and shop.” Statements like these sound great at a public candidate forum, but they’re merely the latest rationale and cover language for giving developers maximum housing and commercial density at the expense of our quality of life.
Weiner has given developers more than just his frequent support for rezoning. He voted to eliminate Community Character Hearings at which public input had been considered during a redevelopment process. He’s also never criticized existing zoning which favors developers by allowing them to have higher density more often than not. For example, doesn’t a total of 150 houses on the 111 acre Brandywine CC under current zoning sound very generous, especially considering existing congestion? That elected officials like Weiner would offer developers even more than 150 houses shows just how little concerned Weiner is about your quality of life. If this were truly a concern of his, why did he never push for part of the club to be a park, something done all the time in New Jersey?
Anyone who thinks this doesn’t affect them must be oblivious to the ever increasing traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, higher sewer bills, and rising taxes to pay for burgeoning demand for services like police and fire protection, government services, road maintenance, etc. These are the costs of overdevelopment and the connection between the two is never mentioned by Bob Weiner.
WEINER FLIP FLOPS ON WOODLAWN, BCC, DEVELOPER DONATIONS AND MORE
When Weiner was confronted about taking developer money, he changed his story at one point to say that he doesn’t take donations from developers who currently have business before the county, as if this matters. It’s also not even true. Taking just one example of many, he accepted money from Carlino Commercial and their associates as that developer was pushing to get Cavaliers Country Club rezoned. Weiner must have forgotten he told people this new story when he again made the claim on Save the Valley’s candidate questionaire.
What Weiner has said about protecting Beaver Valley has also changed. On Save the Valley’s questionaire, Weiner wrote – contradicting what he said a few months earlier – that the Woodlawn Trustees have “an obligation to protect the 321 acres it currently owns in New Castle County. The current trustees are violating both their founder’s mandate and their establishing charter.” That one person could make both statements below in the same six months is proof enough of how unfit he is to hold his county council seat.
If you weren’t familiar with the above statement made on Facebook this past spring, you would otherwise think Weiner is a strong supporter of protecting Beaver Valley, right? During this election season, he has certainly taken every opportunity to say how much he wants to protect Woodlawn’s remaining 300 acres along the PA border. This is a brand new position, though. For the past five years, he has maintained complete radio silence on this issue except when, in the moment of carelessness captured above, he revealed his actual attitude towards preserving Beaver Valley. That moment came when he was asked why he hadn’t spoken out publicly against Woodlawn’s ongoing liquidation of their taxpayer-subsidized land which William Bancroft had charged them with protecting, Weiner said “Woodlawn Trustees is a tax paying for profit organization with no mission or duty to preserve. I have read the documents.”
Importantly, those Woodlawn documents he’s referencing in the second screenshot actually say the exact opposite of what Mr. Weiner claims. According to founder William Bancroft: “I would like to gather up the rough land north of Wilmington to protect it for future generations.” This is an obsessive concern repeated many times in the original Woodlawn/Bancroft letters and documents kept at the Hagley Museum.
With regard to Weiner’s comment about Woodlawn’s for-profit status, this was not how Woodlawn started out. After being sued by the IRS in the late 60s for behaving more like a developer than a charitable land conservancy, Woodlawn voluntarily relinquished its nonprofit 501(c)(3) status in about 1969 so they wouldn’t be bothered by the IRS anymore. By that point, they had accumulated most of the land that they would come to own and they knew they could also still avail themselves of two generous conservation programs in PA and DE which offered substantial tax abatements for large landowners (Act 319 in PA, and the Farmland Tax Exemption in DE). Instead of providing permanent preservation, however, these programs have been used by developers like Woodlawn to warehouse land at a discount until such time as they develop.* (See footnote below)
Bob Weiner knows this history yet he has never uttered an objection to Woodlawn’s cashing in on their heavily subsidized wildlife refuge despite his oft repeated concern for the “taxpayer,” that mythical creature dragged into the spotlight during election season. Thanks to the silence of New Castle County Council and Bob Weiner, NCC taxpayers have been compelled to subsize large owners like Woodlawn even as they’re now paying to have publicly accessible open space sold out from under them.
Weiner’s temerity has no limit. At the recent candidate forum, he actually took credit for saving various parcels of land that he literally had nothing to do with protecting: Alapocas State Park, Rock Manor, Red Clay Creek (sic), and, wait for it… Beaver Valley! That’s right.
In this video clip, Bob Weiner takes credit for saving Beaver Valley, the very place that he has been completely silent about for the past five years. The one piece of Beaver Valley that he actually could have helped protect, the 41 subsidized acres Wilmington University now sits on, was the subject of much self congratulation for seeing it developed (Woodlawn, if you recall, was only paying $91 each year in total property taxes for that 41 acres). Despite his involvement in getting Wilmington University to make superficial repairs to the barn on the WU parcel, Weiner has said and done nothing in support of the Beaver Valley Conservancy’s efforts just across the state line, nor has he taken any concrete steps to either encourage or force Woodlawn to abide by its founder’s mission (his recent candidate statements notwithstanding). Moreover, as we were looking for all the help we could get on both sides of the state line, Weiner has NEVER returned a phone call or email from us asking for his help to bring the Beaver Valley preservation issue to a wider audience.
With regard to taxes, Mr. Weiner recently voted to approve a tax hike of 15% while claiming on his website that he has never voted to raise taxes. It’s more of his wanting things both ways. He has told constituents that “we have enough parks” in New Castle County but then says the opposite on STV’s questionaire. He poses as an open space advocate, but he has never said a word (prior to the run up to this election) about preserving Woodlawn’s subsidized land.
Dee Durham’s candidacy and preservation bona fides must really have Bob Weiner worried because now he’s flip flopped on his rezoning stance for the Brandywine Country Club. Notice below that he doesn’t explicitly say he’s opposed to the rezoning, but that he finds “the current application to be inconsistent with our community’s character. I am working with CarZ and CCOBH to assure that they are effective.”
There’s more than a hint of irony in Weiner’s audacity: CarZ (Citizens Against Rezoning) was started because of his support for the Brandywine Country Club rezoning. And what a strange statement that he will “not [declare] what his vote will be.” Rezoning requests are not “constitutionally guaranteed.” Officials are certainly within their rights to publicly and vocally oppose higher density uses not permitted on the zoning maps.
In the end, Bob Weiner is not just wrong for Beaver Valley. He’s a disaster for New Castle County. If you care about saving Beaver Valley, common sense land use in general, and protecting your quality of life, you need to support Dee Durham. With her long career of working for several conservation organizations, Dee is just what New Castle County needs to rein in the out-of-control development and rezoning that’s filling up our schoools, choking our roads, paving over our scenic landscapes, impairing our quality of life, and triggering the need for tax increases. Unlike Bob Weiner, Dee is NOT beholden to developers and other special interests and she’s a beacon of honesty. With the fate of the Woodlawn Trustees’ taxpayer-subsidized land in Beaver Valley still uncertain, we desperately need Dee on County Council.
*In exchange for keeping their land “open,” property owners in these programs received significant assessment reductions. For Woodlawn, this 40+ year tax holiday has come at everyone else’s expense since we all paid higher rates to cover the shortfall. This would actually be a fair arrangement if the abated open space was permanently preserved by easement. But that’s not the case and the penalty to “change the use of the land,” i.e. the “withdrawal penalty” is an ongoing swindle of Wall Street proporitions.
Case in point: when Woodlawn arranged to sell 325 acres in Concord Township to one of their own board members (Richard Julian, also a donor to Weiner), the penalty for withdrawing from Act 319 was a pittance of just the last 7 years of “rollback taxes.” The savings from the other 33 odd years in the program came compliments of the taxpayer. In Delaware it’s been even more generous, with landowners only responsible for a pro-rated period of the past five years. Yet Woodlawn paid just $91 in total taxes on that land in 2014. For more on this, check out this article.