Plan to buy former library building withdrawn after emotional protest
By Tony E. Windsor
In a surprising outcome to a public hearing in Seaford last week, a local charity backed out of a decision to occupy the vacant building which formerly housed the Seaford District Library on Porter Street. Emotions ran high at times during the more than two-and-a-half-hour public meeting, held at Seaford City Hall on Wednesday, June 2. The meeting was scheduled by the city as standard protocol for entities seeking variances in existing zoning regulations.
The Seaford Board of Adjustments and Appeals held the public hearing to allow public comment regarding a request by the Seaford branch of the Salvation Army to gain special exception to operate in the residential neighborhood as a church and obtain a variance for off-street parking.
The Seaford Library left its former home at 414 Porter Street late last year and now occupies a new building on Pine Street Ext., near the Seaford Industrial Park. Recently the Salvation Army expressed an interest in purchasing the former library building, saying it has outgrown its current location in the Food Lion shopping center.
Meeting city ordinances relating especially to off-street parking presented a challenge to the Salvation Army. The Porter Street area is zoned "Residential - Low Density."
City codes permit special exceptions to the zoning by entities including "a church or other place of worship, seminary or convent, parish house or Sunday school building." However, it was also estimated that the Salvation Army would need 40 parking spaces to meet city regulations. The Salvation Army proposed to get a variance for a lesser number of parking spaces, with 11 on-site parking spaces being considered for a portion of the lot.
Pursuant to city ordinances, the Salvation Army proposed to get an exception for use of the building as a church. Major Philip De Michael, regional coordinator for the Delaware Salvation Army, said the objectives of the Salvation Army are outlined in its mission statement, which states in part: "The Salvation Army is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.'
The Salvation Army proposed to utilize the former Seaford library building to expand its existing services, including children's activities, Bible study, after-school studies, a food closet and music classes. As the noon meeting at City Hall progressed Councilman Rhea Shannon, who sat in for Mayor Ed Butler, who chairs the Board of Adjustment, explained that those in support of the Salvation Army request would speak first, followed by those who were in opposition.
One by one, children and parents who take part in Salvation Army programming, including after-school activities and special music programs, expressed their support for the project, saying it would give more room as an option to an already overcrowded meeting place.
Major DeMichael expressed assurance that the Salvation Army site would not be used as a "soup kitchen" or any type of mass feeding site. "Our purpose is clear," he said. "We will be a church with charitable assistance." Charles "Chaz" Engle and his wife, Debbie, head up the Salvation Army program in Seaford. Both presented information about the charitable projects that are currently underway in the city. Charles Engle explained that the Salvation Army is more than "red Kettles." He said the Seaford location provides on-site family assistance and spiritual guidance for those who utilize the services. He said he also visits local patients at nursing homes as well as inmates at the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown.
Debbie Engle, a former member of the Delaware Symphony, said she and her husband share their passion for music with the children as part of a Salvation Army ministry. "God called me and my husband into a music ministry to use all our talent for the Salvation Army," she said. "We want to see both young and old have the chance I had growing up with two parents who took care of me. We want to help assure that children in single-family households have an opportunity for a quality life."
Rose Adams, president of the Seaford District Library Board of Directors, said the Salvation Army would be a perfect fit for the library building.
"The library is a non-profit and we certainly need to sell the former library building," she said. "But, it needs to be filled with a useful purpose. I feel the Salvation Army would be a good fit for that building. They provide services that the community needs and wants. The Salvation Army would be an enhancement to the community and neighborhood."
Adams also said that she feels the Salvation Army would also impact the traffic in the neighborhood even less than the former library did.
"The Salvation Army does not have the continuous flow of people that the library had. There would be no parking problems. There is a lot of misinformation being spread in the community."
In recent weeks some residents in the neighborhood of Porter Street began posting yard signs declaring "No Salvation Army." Two of the opponents to the relocation of the Salvation Army were Porter Street residents Doug and Carol Beth Lambert, who reside two doors north of the library building.
Both point out that their position against the sale of the building to the Salvation Army is in no way in deference to the work that the charity does in the community.
"The Salvation Army does wonderful work and we feel they are an outstanding organization," Carol Beth Lambert said. "It is unfortunate that we are put in a position to seemingly go up against the Salvation Army in order to defend our rights to protect the quality of life in our neighborhood."
The Lamberts, like the more than 35 people who attended the meeting to oppose the Salvation Army requests, pointed mainly to increased foot and vehicle traffic in the neighborhood and the potential for having people loitering around the building seeking charitable services during hours the Salvation Army is not operating. Both Lamberts appeared at the public hearing and spoke against the proposal. Doug Lambert proposed that the city consider buying the library building and demolishing it to make room for a city park.
"I challenge the city to buy the library building, knock it down and build a park," he said. "We have many children living in our neighborhood and they would have a place to go and play. I would be happy to help police the park. If the city can buy the Seaford Golf and Country Club, maybe it could also make necessary arrangements to purchase this building as well."
Carol Beth Lambert said the issue in her mind is not about religion, "as some have tried to make it." She said she believes the issue to be centered around the Seaford District Library seeking to "unload its property" on Porter Street to help shore up its Capital Campaign.
"The Seaford District Library should be ashamed of itself," she said. "The library knows full well what problems our neighborhood had to deal with when they were located in our neighborhood. Now in a self-serving interest, namely the sale of the library building, they are willing to saddle us with a Salvation Army outreach center. The results will be an unsafe neighborhood and lower property values." Lambert named off nine locations in Seaford that she feels are much more suitable for the Salvation Army, including the building formerly housing Manlove's Automotive Parts store on Front Street and a warehouse location in the Seaford Industrial Park.
She continued to express concern about the potential for the unintended attraction of "undesirables" to the Porter Street neighborhood should the Salvation Army locate there.
"Good intentions have unintended consequences. We do not accept the premise that everything will be neatly tucked away inside the building," she said.
"Undesirables always find handout locations and they will now be within walking distance. This is a middle-class neighborhood and we all have worked hard to maintain our properties. My husband and I have invested $60,000 in our home with another $20,000 planned. Our neighbors have made similar investments. We will be left with lower property values if this is not stopped."
Bob Larkin, a member of the Friends of the Seaford District Library, said having the Salvation Army interested in the library building was very fortunate for the community and neighborhood.
"When the library left that building I questioned who would want to buy a 7,000-square-foot building? I thought we would face urban blight. I felt this was a real shame," he said. "When I heard the Salvation Army was interested in the building, I was elated. This is a Christian mission organization and the neighbors would not have to worry about the property being kept up. The Salvation Army would make a great neighbor." Area architect, Patrick Ryan, attended the public hearing on behalf of his mother-in-law who resides on Porter Street. He said that the residential zoning in the Porter Street neighborhood of R-1 Low Density is the "most restrictive zoning in the city." He said other neighborhoods, unlike Porter Street, have zoning that includes multi-family dwellings. He said the library was built sometime in the mid to late 1960s, prior to the establishment of the city building codes.
Ryan said what was being proposed by the Salvation Army was significant in scope of traditional exceptions and variances. "The existing library building was operating as a non-conforming use," he said. "What the Salvation Army is proposing given the need for a loading zone and considerable additional parking would require the existing land use to be utilized for parking and to meet requirements for the loading zone and storm water management," he said.
Ryan said he admits that he can only go by available information and is not privy to the exact figures, but based on his calculations a building being utilized for the purposes outlined by the Salvation Army, including assembly use and food loading, would need 81 parking spaces.
"I know there is room for discussion with my calculations, but even with the city itself saying there was a need for 40 parking spaces to meet code regulations the Salvation Army is seeking to get a variance that would enable it to meet only 27 and a half percent of the city's code stipulations. Making concessions like this would be extremely significant in terms of setting a precedent."
Ryan said his biggest concern was language in the Salvation Army application to the city. In the application it is stated: "The building would also house office space for distribution of funds for needy families and various other services provided by The Salvation Army."
Ryan said this language is open-ended and available for future interpretation. "This language is wide open," he said. "It would be necessary for the city to address this issue with specific conditions if it were to move forward," he said.
During the meeting some in the audience opposed Board of Adjustment member James Fuqua taking a hand count vote of those for and against the project. There was vocal dissatisfaction expressed, largely from those in opposition to the Salvation Army requests.
Some expressed opposition to the fact that young children were being included in the count as well as people who were not property owners in the city. Some also complained that because of the length of the meeting people had left and were unable to be counted. At one point when Fuqua ignored the protests and continued to attempt a count, someone yelled out "That's not fair!"
Fuqua responded, "That's just ignorant. Stop yelling." When he completed the count Fuqua announced "an approximate" 26 in favor and 39 against the Salvation Army request to locate on Porter Street.
Surprise move ends discussion All in all, over 65 people attended the public hearing and almost as many spoke for or against the Salvation Army request to make adjustments to enable the purchase of the library property. However, in a move that left many in the council chambers stunned, Major Philips DeMichaels stood and proclaimed that he would withdraw the Salvation Army's request to locate in the library building.
"Rather than put this commission [Board of Adjustments] in an awkward position, and based on what we heard here today, the Salvation Army is rescinding its application regarding this property. The Salvation Army does not want to go where it is not wanted," he said.
DeMichael's announcement was met with thunderous applause and chants of "thank you" from various members of the council chamber audience.
Following the meeting, Doug and Carol Beth Lambert said they were both still in shock over the surprise announcement by Major DeMichaels. "We spent a lot of time researching and gathering facts to support our concerns and for the outcome to be this, we are very appreciative," Doug Lambert said.
Carol Beth Lambert said this was in no way "a victory" as far as she is concerned. "I credit Major DeMichaels for what he did. It was very gracious of him and we certainly appreciate it. But, it is still so sad that in order for us to defend our neighborhood we had to go up against the Salvation Army. This was never about being critical of the work the Salvation Army does. We just do not believe they belong in a middle-class residential neighborhood."
Rose H. Adams, Library Board president, said she was also surprised by Major DeMichael's announcement. "I was surprised at the unexpected decision by the Salvation Army to withdraw their application," she said "We wish them all the best in their future endeavor to find a home.Ê Meanwhile, the library will continue to explore options for usage of the Porter Street building.ÊWe are excited about future prospects of meeting the continuing needs of the community."
Seaford District Library Capital Campaign Steering Committee co-chairs Barbara Allen and Betty Wilbanks issued a statement following the public hearing. "On behalf of the Steering Committee, we were very disappointed in the reaction of the neighborhood. The Salvation Army would have been a good neighbor. The sale of the library was always part of the plan. We have no need for two buildings. The City has a great new library and we are currently moving forward."
DeMichaels said the Salvation Army will continue to provide its services in the greater Seaford area and will also continue its search for a property to help meet its expanding needs for space.
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