How a 300-home development planned for Lewes will affect traffic, wildlife and water
Over 300 new homes are coming to the southern side of Mulberry Knoll Road in Lewes.
It's a bucolic stretch of road off Route 24 that typically sees just 280 vehicles daily, according to a 2019 traffic study. But Scenic Manor, which plans to develop about 167 acres on either side of the road, will bump traffic numbers up over 3,000, according to the same study.
The Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission approved Land Investment, LLC's plan for the 319-home Scenic Manor development on April 22.
But their approval came following an April 8 meeting in which they received a petition with over 500 signatures and heard from about a half-dozen people who oppose the planned development.
"We have enjoyed the tranquility and beauty of this farmland, its wildlife, forests and wetlands," said Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills resident Lisa Kiracofe. "The building of Scenic Manor will drastically change all of this."
Thomas Best and Sons, Inc., which owns the property, did not return requests for comment and MKR representative John Richardson declined to provide any substantial information.
Right now, Mulberry Knoll Road consists of a little over a mile of mostly farmland, followed by the 60-home Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills subdivision and Love Creek Natural Area, which has boating access to Rehoboth Bay.
While most of the land Scenic Manor is set to be built on is farmland, it’s bordered to the east and west by Arnell Creek and Dorman Branch, respectively. Along those bodies of water are about 20 acres of mostly-forested tidal wetlands.
Kiracofe and others speaking against Scenic Manor weren't 100% opposed to it, but had a laundry list of requests related to traffic and environmental concerns – all of which they say need to be addressed.
Safety measures required
Commissioner J. Bruce Mears made the motion to approve Scenic Manor April 22 with just two conditions of note.
The first was simple: No residential building permits will be issued until a traffic light is installed at Mulberry Knoll Road and Route 24.
The Mulberry Knoll Road/Route 24 traffic light was previously planned by DelDOT and is expected to be installed in 2022.
The second hinged on the safety of people crossing major roads to get from one side of a development to another – a concern voiced more than once at a recent commission meeting.
The condition determined by the commissioners said that no homes may be constructed on the western side of the road until Department of Transportation-approved pedestrian crossing measures are in place.
With most of Scenic Manor's homes and amenities, including a clubhouse and pool, on the eastern side of Mulberry Knoll Road, the residents of the 60 or so homes on the western side will frequently have to cross it.
What about the traffic?
Traffic on Route 24, a designated DelDOT evacuation route, has long been an issue. It's especially apparent at the intersection at Mulberry Knoll Road, where traffic is only controlled by a two-way stop.
"It's absolutely impossible to get in or out. You kind of feel like you have to risk your life making the turn on or off 24," said Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills resident Lisa Biggs.
On top of that, Mulberry Knoll Road is a narrow one.
"Realistically, you have to drive down the middle of the road because there are so many patches," said another resident, Scott McClintock. "It's really beat up."
As part of the Henlopen Transportation Improvement District, MKR is required to pay DelDOT about $1.5 million for road improvements within the district. They're also required to reconstruct Mulberry Knoll Road to add three entrances to Scenic Manor and soften a curve where one of the entrances will be located.
In addition to the planned traffic light at Mulberry Knoll Road and Route 24, there are several other ongoing or planned DelDOT projects that will alleviate traffic issues in the area – at least to some degree.
Construction has already begun on widening Route 24 to four lanes between the intersection of Love Creek Elementary/Beacon Middle schools and Route 1. Turn lanes will be added, and the intersection at Lexus Way – the Route 24 Beebe Healthcare campus – will be signalized.
"The existing level of service on area roadways will not be degraded as a result of this subdivision," Mears wrote in his approval. "In many cases, (it) will contribute to improve levels of service."
What about the wildlife?
There are no threatened or endangered species or critical habitat on the Scenic Manor property, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control noted there is one species of concern that may occur at the site – the eastern tiger salamander. It spends most of its lifecycle underground.
For the benefit of the salamander, they recommended tree clearing be as limited as possible and advocated against the use of vertical curbs that small species have trouble climbing. Scenic Manor's streets will have rolled curbs, according to the developer.
But neither agency mentioned the American kestrel, a small falcon residents say hunts on the farmland Scenic Manor is set to develop, and nests in the trees along Arnell Creek.
"The kestrel is just such an extraordinary bird," said Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills resident Anna Biggs. "It really catches the eye, with the orange and blue checkerboard pattern."
The kestrel was listed as endangered in Delaware in 2013, and Mid-Atlantic region has experienced a population decline of more than 93% since the 1960s, according to the Delaware Kestrel Partnership.
DNREC's Species Conservation and Research Program has not surveyed the Scenic Manor property for potential sensitive species, but requested to when reviewing the plan for Scenic Manor. Despite Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills residents imploring the survey be allowed, MKR declined.
DNREC recommended a 100-foot buffer surrounding all wetlands, too, but MKR went with what Sussex County requires: 50 feet.
None of the 20 acres of wetlands on the property will be impacted by Scenic Manor, though about eight acres of forest will be cleared.
Where will the water go?
The design of the stormwater management plan is intended to maintain natural drainage characteristics of the site, MKR attorney James Fuqua said.
Stormwater will be discharged into Arnell Creek, despite DNREC's recommendation it be diverted from the Love Creek Natural Area.
"Water and habitat quality could be detrimentally affected by run-off which may contain oil and other pollutants, such as fertilizers and other chemicals applied by homeowners," DNREC wrote in their review of the Scenic Manor application.
They also discouraged MKR from disturbing hydric soils found on the site because they act as a sponge for water storage, and without them, will contribute to lower observed water quality in nearby bodies of water and wetlands.
However, the site will be graded to raise it above the base flood elevation level.
Residents of Mulberry Knoll Bayshore Hills expressed concerns that the grading (or filling) of certain areas, the addition of impervious surfaces and the elimination of trees could create increased flooding downstream, where their homes are.
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Wheatley tried to alleviate those concerns.
"You cannot run water on your neighbor. Anytime a site is developed they can't just build something up and then let it just run off wherever they want to," he said. "If you're going to rearrange the topography... that has to be done in a fashion that does not affect your neighbors."