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The Never-Ending Boom

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Middletown Mayor Ken Branner has taken pride in keeping
taxes down over 20 years of unprecedented growth, due
largely to accommodations made by developers, who help
pay for municipal improvements.

Photograph by Pat Crowe II

Former insurance commissioner David Levinson remembers his hometown, Middletown, as a place where people didn’t lock their doors or cars and the crime rate was one a year. When his father was mayor in the 1930s, the town of 1,500 was hailed as a model. In the midst of the Great Depression, it had lights, sewers, paved streets, trash collection, public schools, police and low taxes.

Now southern New Castle County is home to thousands who commute to New York, Washington, D.C., and points between. The Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area is projected to exceed 48,000 residents by 2025 and 96,000 by 2030.

It’s a trend repeated in small towns across the state. Attracted by low taxes and inexpensive housing, people are sinking roots near places like Smyrna and Bridgeville, which, not long ago, were mere dots on the map. State planning office director Constance Holland says growth is not haphazard. Most has been in targeted areas so “that small towns don’t lose their character” in the rush to suburbanize.

Middletown is such a place. MOT’s largest municipality, it has grown by more than 66 percent since the 2000 census. Its footprint has grown almost tenfold in the past 20 years, and its budget has expanded from $2.9 million in 1989 to $33 million this year.

Growth has been a fact in Middletown since Colonial times, when it consisted of a lone tavern at the crossroads halfway between Odessa and Maryland’s Bohemia River. When the town incorporated with 368 residents in 1861, it measured a mile square, making it the “Diamond Town in the Diamond State.”

By 1962 it had lost its diamond shape with the annexation of a housing development, and its population had grown to 2,200. Downtown thrived. A sign on U.S. 301 west of town proclaimed “Middletown—Hub of the East,” but the telephone exchange Frontier hinted otherwise. As late as 1980, the first glimpse of Middletown’s eastern edge from the road was the high school ag teacher’s cows grazing a mile from the center square.

Students still take ag classes and belong to 4-H. Yet nowhere is growth more telling than in school statistics. The Appoquinimink district has opened five new buildings in the past decade, and it is poised to add eight more over the next seven years. The system is now the area’s largest employer.

As mayor for 20 years, Kenneth Branner Jr. has promoted annexation in order to regulate growth. “If you want to control your own destiny, you have to do it, or you’re at the whim of other people,” he says.

But growth is expensive, demanding new schools, roads, libraries, sewers and other infrastructure, which creates a tug of war among residents over cost and quality of life.  Over the past year, the town has had to grapple with some big-city issues. It established a police force, built an upgraded communications tower for emergency responders, expanded town council and instituted a taxpayer-accountable community grant program in place of interest-free employee loans.

Branner is proud that on his watch, town taxes came down and stayed down. That’s partly because developers pay impact fees to cover sewer and water connection and provide lights and roads as a condition for annexation and approval of their projects. They are also required to donate land for schools and parks.

But taxpayers district-wide have to pay for schools. Chuck Mulholland, who lives outside Middletown, has watched his taxes double over the past 10 years. Past president of the Appoquinimink school board and current president of the Southern New Castle County Alliance citizen watchdog group, he says newer residents, accustomed to higher taxes elsewhere, don’t notice. But “the longer they are here, the more they realize that what we had is being taken away.”

The last school referendum passed, but with no industry to share the tax burden, voters had little choice but to dig deep for needed improvements. Residents outside the town’s boundaries complain they are penalized by Middletown’s low taxes. Topping the list of concerns Mulholland and others raise at public meetings are traffic, environmental degradation, loss of farmland and the place’s changing character.

When Wal-Mart wanted to build a superstore, some residents balked. Town council approved the plan, then realized it violated zoning. A new location was found, and despite lawsuits over a zoning change, potential traffic problems and excessive paving of a water recharge area, Wal-Mart won. It joins a parade of auto dealerships and other development that is replacing farmland on the U.S. 301 commercial corridor that bisects the west side of town.

“The biggest joke in town was that you couldn’t buy a pair of socks in Middletown,” says Scott Lawrence, a fourth-generation resident and former editor of The Middletown Transcript. “But I think the older residents would rather drive the half hour to Dover or Wilmington.”

The Wal-Mart superstore is part of the Westown development area of homes, businesses, a golf course, a school and spray fields for wastewater. The spray fields form part of the town’s greenbelt, a key in Branner’s plan to create a border between the town and county sprawl.

Townsend has also grown through annexation, but less aggressively. Odessa has maintained its boundaries for years, in part because it lies near sensitive marshlands, some of which are preserved, along with farmland. Yet neither Odessa nor Townsend is immune to sprawl, traffic, high taxes or the risk of dropping well water levels due to overdevelopment.

Michael McGrath, manager of Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, jokingly told Branner that if any more land were annexed, the town would have a Maryland ZIP code. The MOT area has the best farmable soil “in the world,” he says. “The conundrum of the farmers is that they love the land, but they are always confronted with financial reality. I don’t blame developers. They do what we let them do.”

Arguably the largest single landowner outside of town is holding on to its 2,000-plus acres. Saint Andrew’s School was founded on 360 acres of farmland in 1929 by A. Felix du Pont precisely because of its isolated setting. Over the years, the school, on Noxontown Pond, purchased nearly all the adjacent waterfront properties. Surrounded by woods and fields, it is an oasis in an otherwise suburban landscape and the southeastern corner of the town greenbelt. A letter to the editor of the local paper expressed the feelings of many toward the school: “Thank heaven Saint Andrew’s owns land here.”

While the limits of Middletown expand, the town has poured money into the downtown district to make it an attractive destination for local folks. The town has buried utilities, planted trees and spruced up the original crossroads, Cochran Square, with brick pavement and benches around the veterans’ monument. Main Street has been narrowed to discourage through traffic, and big rigs are outlawed.

Older businesses such as Buckworth’s Hardware, Hatton jeweler and Immediato’s Subs and Steaks give Main Street an air of familiarity. The Everett, a 1920s movie theater, shows first-run films once a month. In the former auto parts store next door is The Gibby Center, a community arts center and gallery, and around the corner is The Academy, an 1824 school the Middletown Historical Society is making into a museum.

Main Street Middletown, Inc., a non-profit revitalization group, helps businesses improve their looks and marketing skills and courts new businesses. In the summer it organizes art loops to encourage families to wander downtown and visit the galleries. Director Lorraine Dion says that when residents come home, “they don’t want to drive back to Wilmington. They want entertainment, to see the arts. They want to have a meal at a restaurant.” Main Street is making those things possible.

“We know we’ll never be a little farm town again,” says Helen Alford, president of the historical society. For better or worse, that’s true.

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