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New rail study highlights potential Kent development

Katie Tabeling

Delmarva Corrugated Packaging was a major win for Kent County, and arrived in part to its proximity to the railroad. A new spur helps them bring in materials. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

CAMDEN —  In today’s world of interstate highways and roads, railroads may seem a relic of the past. But a new study conducted by the Dover/Kent Metropolitan Planning Organization shows that rail may also be part of Kent County’s future when it comes to attracting businesses.

The Rail Corridor Land Use Study was completed in August 2022 and formally adopted by the Dover/Kent MPO Council earlier this month. Since 2021, the transportation planning organization has been studying county and municipal comprehensive plans and mapping all existing parcels along the Delmarva Central Railroad, highlighting key areas ripe for commercial and industrial development. An interactive online map highlights these areas, as well as the potential infrastructure access on the land.

“The intention was really to look at rail with the eyes of a planner, and maybe point out some things that other municipal or county leaders didn’t think about — or see how it could fit in a broader basis, beyond their own borders,” Dover/Kent MPO Executive Director Marilyn Smith told the Delaware Business Times.

The rail study area covered the Delmarva Central Railroad that runs from Clayton to Farmington, as well as the line that diverges in Harrington and runs to Milford. In total, there is 8,096 acres of land in Kent County that has rail running through it.

But not all of that land may be viable for development. Some of that is in wetlands, or in the agriculture preservation program, or the configuration may not be suited for distribution or industrial use, or it has a standalone home or homes on it.

That leaves 3,591 acres, on 161 parcels of land, considered for potential development, according to the Dover/Kent MPO analysis.

Top area identified with the most available land include: 292 acres in south Camden; 251 acres in north Viola; 260 acres in the Felton area; 1,711 acres in Farmington combined; 435 acres between Harrington and Farmington; 524 acres in the Milford area combined and 371 acres in south Harrington.

In the past two years, two major businesses chose Kent County over other prospects due to a surprising factor: access to the railroad.

Delmarva Corrugated Packaging was quickly able to get a rail spur installed near its 497,000-square-foot building on Delaware Route 15 to ship materials. Meanwhile, the former PPG plant was bought by National Vinyl Projects — now owned by Oldcastle APG — because of an existing rail spur on site. Now the manufacturing plant ships in PVC resin for its daily work.

With the rail study — and more importantly, the interactive map — in hand, Kent Economic Development Executive Director Linda Parkowski can better identify large parcels, or even a series of smaller parcels that could be grouped together, to find the next best prospect.

“This study is very significant, because we’ve had two large projects that needed rail access, and the interest is there,” Parkowski told DBT. “I’m getting numerous requests every week for rail access. In order to market Kent County in an effective way, we need to identify land to do that.”

Delmarva Central Railroad Chief Marketing Officer Cliff Grunstra applauded the study, but said he would like to go one step further and expand the research throughout the entire state.

“We need the state to look at access in Sussex and New Castle County, especially as we’re seeing more of an urban sprawl in both,” Grunstra said. “We’ve got parcels zoned industrial and have infrastructure access, and there’s so many markets that we can tap into from our great, central location.”

The Rail Corridor Land Use Study also evaluates the comprehensive plans of 14 municipalities, and the analysis showed that only Clayton, Felton and Harrington highlight rail use in those documents. Kent County, Clayton, Dover and Harrington noted future investments for freight and passenger rail.

“Even with some of these mentions, there really hasn’t been a plan of what could happen with these properties along the rail except for Clayton and Harrington,” Kent/Dover MPO Principal Planner Jim Galvin said. “Dover and Felton did a little bit, but it’s limited.”

Between 1972 and 2018, Kent County heard 31 rezoning applications for properties adjacent to the railroad. Twenty four of those applications were approved — and 10 of those applications changed the zoning from industrial to commercial or residential.

In those 46 years, Kent County saw a loss of three industrial parcels adjacent to the railroad and gained 17 industrial parcels.

But Kent County is the smallest county in Delaware, and filled with small towns that may struggle with the amount of investment that may come with building additional rail spurs or a transload terminal, Smith added. 

Harrington has been working toward a freight terminal, and was awarded $1 million in state funds for the project. The cost of the terminal itself could cost $15 million.

“With these small municipalities along this corridor, an investment to build that rail, it can be a long-term strategic investment that’s not inexpensive. For a small town like Viola or Farmington, the question could be, is that a realistic thing for them to consider championing,” Smith said.

To read the study, visit https://bit.ly/3dc0L90

To visit the interactive map, go to https://bit.ly/3xnsHNX

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