Gordon confronted on New Castle County farmland preservation

New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon answers questions on his controversial farmland preservation proposal. (Joe Irizarry/WDEL)

With the primary election less than one month away, WDEL's farmland preservation series took center stage at a fiery debate between candidates for New Castle County Executive--including incumbent Tom Gordon.

He's been ignoring WDEL for weeks.

"You! You're the ones I don't want to talk to," said Gordon to a WDEL reporter following the end of the debate. "Goodbye."

Refusing to cover up alleged corruption and armed with never-before-seen documents, WDEL chose to tell the New Castle County farmland preservation story.

Following weeks of silence, County Executive Tom Gordon finally spoke out on a debate stage about his farmland preservation deal that seeks to pay $6 million, through a combination of federal, state and county funds, for development rights to two politically-connected farmers' lands in Port Penn: former state Farm Bureau president Gary Warren, and ex-public service commissioner Jaymes Lester.

He claimed the costly deal is about farmland preservation.

"Nobody wants Port Penn to be urban sprawl--that's what's going to happen," said Gordon, who's running for re-election.

It could happen some day, but there are currently no developers knocking on Warren or Lester's door asking to build homes. Toll Brothers hasn't been interested since the real estate market crash in 2008.

Corn is irrigated on Tommy Unruh's preserved farmland. (Amy Cherry/WDEL).

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Gordon claimed he's tied to a legal settlement that requires him to build a sewer from Route 13 to Port Penn Road.

"The sewer's going to cost $3 million, and the county's going to pay $3 million either to preserve or do the sewer," said Gordon. "I'm not going to do any horse trading. I'm going to bring it to county council and say, 'Sewer or preserve?' That's the question."

At a New Castle County Council executive committee meeting, assistant county attorney Mary Jacobson cited the cost at $1.5 to $2 million.

The cost of building the sewer continued to rise when county employees are asked. Conservationist Dave Carter called Gordon's statement on the cost a lie, and said Gordon's using an inflated sewer cost to push through the preservation deal.

Tracy Surles, Senior Manager with New Castle County's Department of Special Services, didn't return WDEL's request for comment. WDEL has filed a Freedom of Information request for any sewer cost estimates that have been done for the Port Penn area by the county.

If this deal is passed, Warren's farm would be preserved at $27,000 an acre, an unprecedented price for preservation and much higher than even market value. Warren would still own the land and be permitted to farm it--a concern of several county council members who said the public would receive no return on investment from the exorbitant tax dollars proposed for this easement.

Farmers are also in an uproar, saying this deal could alter farmland preservation in the county--and state--forever.

An enormous amount of insider access on the part of Warren has been discovered in the course of WDEL's investigation. When the state conducts its land protection program, farm owners have very little interaction with those making decisions.

Through a Freedom of Information request, WDEL obtained visitor sign-in logs from New Castle County showing Warren visited with executive office staff 24 times from April of 2014 through May of 2016. Lester had visited executive office staff on nine occasions over the two-year period. For five of those appointments, Warren and Lester signed in within minutes of one another.

E-mails--120 of them between Warren and New Castle County then-Chief of Staff James McDonald, also obtained and published by WDEL, revealed Warren was involved in the appraiser selection and other portions of a process from which he stands to benefit from greatly.

Gordon's opponent, Democratic candidate Matt Meyer, said the deal is overpriced and unfair.

"That's over 15 times the average price that the Delaware farm (program) pays; in fact, it's two-and-a-half times larger than the largest price paid in the country," said Meyer. "This is a $6 million giveaway to two farmers, as WDEL has been reporting all of this week."

Republican candidate Mark Blake raised the same questions WDEL had been asking.

"Does New Castle County have a formal farmland preservation plan? No. Is this is a settlement or is this actually preservation? The people that were going to purchase that land and develop it were Toll Brothers. Are Toll Brothers still interested in that land? No. They were asked, they declined," he said. "Have the settlements been paid? Have the escrows been paid on the deposits? According to the latest stories in WDEL...the answer is, 'No.' This is a red herring. It's a waste of our money. Let the state do it, they're best at it."

Throughout Blake's remarks, Gordon can be heard muttering "that's not true" and "you're going to believe WDEL?"

Applause rang out in the Hockessin Fire Hall after Blake was done speaking.

Four candidates for New Castle County executive debate at the Hockessin Fire Hall. (Joe Irizarry/WDEL)

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Gordon fired back.

"None of what you just said was true," he shouted.

Later, during Meyer's closing statements Gordon said, "bite me, ass****."

Delaware's farmland preservation program is nationally renowned, but Gordon went on to insist it doesn't work in New Castle County.

"The farmland preservation by the state doesn't buy any farms in New Castle County--check it out. They buy several acres for their friends in Kent and Sussex or like everything else it comes from the county, the money comes from the county," said Gordon. "The farms, because they have to compete against themselves, they end up with cactus farms or something that can't grow food. Nothing is ever coming to New Castle County--check out the numbers."

WDEL did check out the numbers. The state's agricultural protection program has preserved 20 percent of available farmland in New Castle County--for a total of 13,000 acres.

And much of the land isn't growing cactuses.

The view from Tommy Unruh's property. Both sides of farmland are preserved. (Amy Cherry/WDEL).

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The Jester Farm on the Levels on the outskirts of Middletown--said by many to be some of the best farmland in the area--was accepted into the state's farmland preservation program this year. Its 141 acres were preserved for nearly $2,300 an acre. Six other highly tillable farms in that area are also part of the state's program.

The Passmore Farm on both sides of Route 9 with a magnificent view of the river on both sides is also among the most highly productive, preserved farmland in the state.

The Passmore farm on both sides of Route 9 with a magnificent view of the river on both sides is among the most highly productive, preserved farmland in the state. (Amy Cherry/WDEL)

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Republican candidate Barry Nahe said Gordon's farmland preservation deal is a "sweetheart deal."

"Every time the government gets involved in purchasing things you know it's going to reek with corruption. You know exactly what's going to happen," said Nahe. "These people are not doing it for the people--they're doing it for themselves and their cronies."

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Check out the entire WDEL farmland preservation series.

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Contact Amy Cherry at acherry@wdel.com or on Twitter

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