I’ve written before about my disgust every time I drive through Middletown, DE on my way to Philadelphia. Very recently, I endured this personal misery three times in consecutive days,
I experience Middletown and then always ask myself: why did this nice town become ugly? I see no evidence of rational planning. I ask: why? What were local officials thinking when they destroyed a once pleasant crossroads, surrounded by fertile farms, and replaced it with a mish-mash of residential and commercial development? My questions go unanswered.
As I drive through mismanaged Middletown to reach the fast-moving Route 1 and Route 95, I gird myself for congestion and incoherence. I groan, needlessly.
To prepare myself for the slough through this town, I deliberately snake my way along the pastoral roads of Ruthsburg and Price in Queen Anne’s County. I love the tranquility, the soothing stillness before experiencing the mess called Middleton. I brace myself with a taste of calm.
For full disclosure: I do stop at the WaWa in Middletown. I like the customer service—and the restroom.
I think about the Eastern Shore and the value of productive land preserved by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and effective state initiatives, such as Program Open Space, Rural Legacy and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation programs. I am thankful our state, as well as some counties, have embraced the culture and policies related to sound and sensible land management.
Like others concerned about preserving land and our desirable, reasonably unfettered quality of life on the Shore, I feel grateful to Gov. Hogan and the General Assembly for approving legislation in the 2016 session to restore Program Open Space funding to full and consistent cash funding by fiscal year 2019. Meanwhile, the upcoming two budgets will have a total of $61.5 million in available money diverted (bureaucratic wording for legal thievery) in the past to balance prior budgets. If the POS budget is diverted again, the governor must include a way to restore a third of the cut over each of three successive years.
The operative word is stability. Open space will be preserved without the fear of being used for other purposes during down times. Call it a lockbox of sorts–mostly impervious, but not entirely so to raids by governors anxious to balance budgets by yanking money from land preservation.
However dire the circumstances–and they were mightily so, 2009-2011–I always cringed when land preservation funding fell victim to budgetary shortfalls. Cash was taken, replaced by bond money. Land was preserved. State debt increased.
While I realize that saving land from sometime wanton exploitation by real estate developers (not all) may seem secondary to funding education and social services, I think the long view can easily get lost during economic stress. Keep farmers farming, grow crops instead of houses and preserve a certain degree of peacefulness and a sense of place inherent in a rural environment–that’s a worthy ideal.
So, a taste of Middletown, DE leaves lingering distaste. It represents development gone amuck. Its past charm as a farm center has evaporated.
Land preservation is a sensible strategy. The governor’s support of stability in Program Open Space is a wise investment in the future.
The value lasts, hopefully, for perpetuity.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Letters to Editor
Keith Thompson says
As a resident of Middletown who works in Chestertown, I find nothing factually wrong about Howard Freelander’s piece. I find everything wrong with his perspective as it reveals an utter lack of understanding of the dynamics of what has made Middletown what it is.
I moved to Middletown in 1995 and the town wasn’t all that pretty then. It essentially consisted of a residential community with a commercial downtown that was badly in need of a few fresh coats of paint. It was also a town that was seeing rapid growth development around it as farmland in the surrounding county was being sold to developers for cheap homes to meet the demand from folks migrating south from Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. The municipal government saw that the town was about to get swamped by growth so their only option was to annex all this property that was being bought up by the developers and to bring that development under town control rather than county control. Mayor Ken Branner said that the time “we can plan this growth better than the county can” and the town has done so.
What has happened? The town has become a regional retail mecca (that actively markets Kent County and Chestertown by the way) and the retail revenue has allowed the town to put those much needed coats of paint on the downtown. Middletown is certainly not an idyllic paradise as traffic is a major headache, but as a resident, I know the shortcuts and back roads that the folks driving through don’t know about. Besides, a lot of Middletown’s traffic issues are not the fault of the locals but are the fault of those, like Mr. Freedlander, who are driving through town on their way elsewhere. This is also something that the Rt. 301 expansion is going to help.
I so often hear whenever growth is mentioned in Kent County that “we don’t want to be like Middletown”. Well fortunately Kent County actually has the opposite dynamic of Middletown meaning that Kent County or Chestertown will never be like Middletown. In fact, it would be nice for both communities for some of that massive migration to Middletown to come further south to Kent County which would ease the infrastructure concerns of Middletown and help reverse the declining school enrollment in Kent.
So if Mr. Freedlander wants to place blame on what has happened to Middletown, he should not be looking at the town leaders of Middletown who have dealt with the situation as best they could, but he should be looking at New Castle County which is only interested in what goes on in Wilmington and its suburbs (Middletown is the bastard stepchild of the county) and the state of Delaware that essentially viewed the greater Middletown area as a growth area. The town either had to adapt to this reality and control it or give up control and be swamped by it. It chose to adapt.
Juanita Wieczoreck says
Before assuming that Middletown is growing without a plan, Mr. Freedlander should check with the Town of Middletown’s Master Plan, the New Castle County Master Plan, the Delaware State Plan, and the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO) long range plan. Rather than allow growth to sprawl throughout New Castle County costing taxpayers millions of dollars in infrastructure and services to rural areas, a conscious decision was made to concentrate new growth in and around existing towns and infrastructure, including Middletown. The development that surrounds the “pleasant crossroads” that gives Mr. Freedlander such displeasure is called West Town. It is a multi-phase development that is attempting to locate residential and commercial property in close proximity to reduce vehicular trips and create more of a community. It is adding infrastructure incrementally to Middletown rather than building developments in greenfields that are more difficult to serve with EMS, police and fire services. The farms in this area are not eligible for Open Space or Agricultural Preservation funding, which are well-funded programs in Delaware. It is designated as an active growth area. There are also plans for a new express toll road (referenced as the 301 expansion project in Mr. Thompson’s letter) that Mr. Freedlander can use to go around the new development if he is not planning to stop at WaWa. Change is not easy, especially when it’s hard to see a big picture that will not be completed for many years. Mr. Freedlander can always get to high speed SR 1 in Delaware without having to suffer the Middletown congestion by going to Smyrna and accessing the highway from US 13 either north or south of town.
Steve Payne says
That’s right. The days of suburban sprawl are over and mixed use style is the future. It actually offers the opportunity to preserve more open areas as well.
Patrick Byrne says
You could go north on 213 and pick up 95 at Elkton. It’s a little longer, but since you like the back roads you will have more time to enjoy the pastoral setting. There is also a Royal Farms with a bathroom, and coffee. Have a great trip.
Carl Samans says
While I appreciate your disdain of Middletown (I am there at least 5 times a week, living in Cecilton), I am also equally dismayed by the stagnancy (which you call preservation or some such) of the Eastern Shore. I have traveled extensively through Cecil (southern), Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties to all areas, having worked here since 1987, and am amazed that it remains pretty much as it was back then.
But then again, since the Eastern Shore aggressively resists change of any kind, I am not surprised. What I am surprised about is the often heard disain of places like Middletown, etc. and how they are bad places with all their growth and such. I’d posit that their growth at such a frenetic pace is partly driven by the lack of growth in places like the Eastern Shore (what’s really grown in Chestertown? It resists ANY change with cries of doom and gloom).
You really should be a bit more objective if you (and many) criticize places like Middletown. Remember, you’d have nothing new to visit anywhere in Kent or QA counties if not for Middletown and the like. And you are (partially) to blame for its rapid growth.
anna Miller says
Well stated. As someone who used to live in Kent County, and now resides in QA County I have to say – we are only still in the immediate area due to fortunate employment situations. We chose to remove our children from Kent schools, and educate them elsewhere. I’d happily shop in Chestertown – but unless I need groceries, or a knick knack or gift from a gift shop, I need to go else where. I can’t think of a place in more need of a bit of fresh blood, but I can’t see anyone doing anything besides digging their feet in. So we take our shopping dollars elsewhere, where they go farther and we get variety. We choose private over public education out of the area. Our now adult children are seeking employment out of the area because – frankly – there are only so many jobs at LaMotte, Dixon, Gillespie or Kent County Government. Perhaps once the powers that be realize that Chestertown is never going to be the next Williamsburg or Annapolis, or arts capital of the upper Eastern Shore, and that things can remain quaint and delightful and still draw tourists if you allow a little flexibility. I’d be the first to line up and support local businesses if they existed. I’d have been happy to educate my children here if we had more options. I’d love for my kids to be able to find employment that actually allows for advancements and the ability to make a healthy living and support a family here. Don’t get me started on why should young married couples but down roots here – can’t have a baby here, aren’t exactly pediatricians on every block. People can not survive on pizza joints and farmers markets alone. Nor does Kent County have the employment infrastructure that allows people to have employment here that allows it. Thank goodness for Redners….a person could die waiting in the lines at ACME – some things never change. And sometimes folks need a bit of change.
As for Middletown, we all have the ability to avoid it if we don’t care for it. In fact, if you aren’t there it makes it easier for the rest of us to find a parking place to spend the money we could have / would have happily closer to home if there were places to do so.
Rob Etgen says
Howard Freedlander’s article about Middletown has touched a nerve – and I am so happy to see the reader opinions. Love of our towns and active and insightful citizen involvement in their planning are keys to their success. As I have heard from Ed McMahon, Scholar at the Urban Land Institute, “if a town does not know where it’s going, it might not get there.”
Regarding Middletown, I bought a house downtown and moved there in 1998. My family was drawn in part by location, but even more so by the plans then showed to me by the Mayor and town planners which brightly displayed a broad greenbelt of protected farmland and open space from Silver Lake south and including all of the Levels. I also understood from those discussions with town officials that new brick sidewalks, historic street lights, and the fresh coat of paint mentioned were all to be installed downtown within months thanks to a Federal grant. Unfortunately, within months most of the farms on the Levels were subdivided with home construction underway, and the downtown upgrade would not happen for over a decade. Less than two years after moving into Middletown we moved back out and landed in Newark – greatly enjoying the thriving downtown, walkable communities, and wonderful bike trail network.
I also lived in Chestertown for awhile and found it, like Newark, to be very walkable, it has an emerging bike trail network, and downtown has excellent vibrancy – although certainly there is room for improvement. The walkable scale of the communities and streets in Chestertown really allowed diverse neighbors to get to know each other easily and brought out true community spirit. One visit to Chestertown’s farmer’s market will show the vast numbers of people of all ages who truly enjoy downtown Chestertown.
To be sustainable in the future, and attractive to a younger workforce, current research encourages that towns need to be walkable, and bikable, and environmentally sensitive with open space nearby, and more than anything thriving with diverse businesses downtown and varied housing types. Chestertown has been wise to see this future and plan for it. Middletown can also get there from here, but the new Rt. 896 expansion will severely cut off any foot traffic from downtown to West Town, and the large parking lots connecting sprawling big box stores make it very hard to walk or bike anywhere.
Thanks to those folks speaking out for the much maligned Middletown. Civic pride is at the heart of any town’s success and I know with your help Middletown can improve in many ways as it’s new development matures.
Gerry Maynes says
Hi, I have been a home owner in Middletown since 1988 and also have spent at least ten years of that time being employed in Chestertown. I have met many fine people in your town and have many fond memories of the area. However I can!t begin to understand the anti Middletown attitude of folks in your neck of the woods
Your town has a failing economy, lacking in any thing to keep the young in your town. You have no growth and no employment. The hospital may go away in a few years, your taxes increase because there are no new industries or businesses to grow the tax base. In short you are waging war against your own Kids .
As for Middletown, my Kids had a great childhood here, good schools, and all three have found good paying jobs right in town and own homes in the area. What you don’t see is the fine parks, the excellent schools, the opportunity to find quality employment, the affordability of owning your own home. Come to think of it I like this town and wouldn!t consider living any other place.
So, when you are visiting my hometown , to go to the movies , buy groceries , eat a good meal , visit our many medical services, or purchase the every day needs of life, that you can!t do in your town. Do me a favor don!t knock my town. After all people are moving here, We like it here