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Hercules redevelopment to break ground in spring

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The former Hercules Country Club is barely recognizable today with only cart paths peeking out of the overgrown foliage. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – More than a decade after acquiring the former Hercules Country Club, real estate development firm Pettinaro Co. is moving forward with a plan to build 258 homes on the overgrown golf course off Lancaster Pike.

The plan proved to be controversial over the years due primarily to concerns about traffic, environmental impact, and historic preservation. It led to a years-long fight that ended before the Delaware Supreme Court over New Castle County’s ability to dictate traffic improvements, and a failed attempt by neighbors of the golf course last known as Delaware National Country Club to raise enough funds to buy the land for natural space.

On Sept. 8, the New Castle County Council approved the final plan in a 12-1 vote, although several members expressed reservations about backing the project.

Gregory Pettinaro

On Thursday, Gregory Pettinaro, CEO of the development firm, told Delaware Business Times that he was glad the project was moving forward after nine years of working on it. He noted that it was a properly zoned, by-right plan that featured lower density of housing than he could have pursued through a rezoning.

“We tried working with the community on a bunch of open space options, which didn’t pan out,” he said. “I appreciate all the community’s help and I’m glad we finally got it done.”

Pettinaro bought the property known to locals as Hercules for $9.2 million in 2009, according to county land records. After initially leasing the property, the golf club that once served Hercules Powder Company employees dating back to the 1930s folded in 2010 and development plans ensued.

Pennsylvania-based homebuilder Toll Brothers was originally tapped to build the community, taking on a $5 million mortgage from Pettinaro to back the project, according to county records. Toll Brothers worked through New Castle County’s development process until it reached the traffic impact study.

After analysts determined that the housing would bring too much congestion to the intersection of Centerville Road and Lancaster Pike without expensive upgrades, the county denied the homebuilder’s plan. Several rounds of appeals ended in 2016 before the state’s highest court, which upheld the county’s decision.

Afterward, Toll Brothers walked away and Pettinaro decided to pursue the development itself. The major difference now is that Pettinaro has pledged to fund the traffic upgrades required by both the county and state, reportedly totaling about $4 million.

As Pettinaro made a renewed push toward development, however, a group of neighbors sought to prevent the building. First named the Friends of Wooddale Preserve and later Hold On To Hercules, the group rallied sympathetic county and state legislators to their cause, sought to raise private funds and draw attention to the county’s Unified Development Code.

After a year of organizing, however, they weren’t able to secure state money through the annual Bond Bill appropriation that was necessary to obtain other potential matching private funds. They added that the COVID-19 pandemic created potential investment instability for the foundations that were supportive of the effort.

“The year of 2020 has been a perfect storm to waylay our best laid plans,” the group wrote in September on Facebook, where they tracked their progress.

Ultimately, after years of waiting in the second attempt, Pettinaro decided it was best to move forward.

“We worked with the community to develop a plan over the time that was more amenable to the community from what was originally proposed,” Gregory Pettinaro noted. “It’s a shame the open space didn’t work out, but the property’s been vacant for over 12 years now, and it’s time to turn into something.”

In June, Toll Brothers satisfied its mortgage on the property, signaling that it either won’t return or is working a new deal. Pettinaro said that he is currently negotiating for who will build the community that will feature 100 townhouses as well as two types of 158 single-family homes. No price range for the homes to be built is available yet, he said. The first homes are expected to be erected within a year and the entire community built out in about five years.

It will come amid a spate of building for Pettinaro off Lancaster Pike, which is also building a mixed-use project anchored by a Wegman’s grocery store at the former Barley Mill Plaza to the east. Gregory Pettinaro said that he believed the development there will help his firm find buyers for the community at the former golf course.

“I think both properties kind of complement each other,” he said, noting Barley Mill will also feature housing.

By Jacob Owens

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