New Castle County's controversial farmland deal off the table

Former Public Service Commissioner Jaymes Lester said his farm on Port Penn Road has been sold to a developer.

A controversial New Castle County business deal that would've turned two politically connected farmers into millionaires--in the name of farmland preservation--is off the table.

Former Delaware Public Service Commissioner Jaymes Lester confirmed to WDEL that he has sold his farm to a developer. That sale means a so-called "sweetheart deal" that would've paid Lester and former Farm Bureau President Gary Warren $6 million for development rights to their farms is no longer an option.

"I did not intend for that to be a political football," said Lester. "Best thing to do is take it off the table and sell it."

County Executive Tom Gordon didn't return WDEL's request for comment.

Lester would not divulge which developer had purchased his farm, but said even if it hadn't sold, he didn't think the New Castle County preservation deal would have gone through, especially now.

"I don't think there was ever any chance of it going through to fruition because they would've had to settle before September 30, and that means it wold have to come up the last meeting this month. I just don't think there was enough votes to pull it off," he said, citing a WDEL special investigation, which revealed Warren had unfettered insider access and a questionable amount of involvement in the process.

WDEL first published uncovered 120 e-mails between Warren and New Castle County then-Chief of Staff James McDonald on August 1, in connection with a five part-series on the farmland preservation deal. At the time the e-mails were published along with the series of reporters, county officials repeatedly refused comment.

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Since the farmland preservation series was published, WDEL has learned New Castle County had set the price to buy development rights to Warren and Lester's farms long before a controversial county appraisal was conducted to bolster the deal.

A resolution dated June 5, 2014 that ratifies the agreement for purchase of the Lester easement shows the price was set at $3.238 million.

A similar resolution, that was never introduced, exists for the Warren property and attempts to justify the cost by a previous appraisal that was obtained by the landowner.

The Valbridge appraisals weren't done until September of 2015.

Comparables listed in the Valbridge appraisal, first made public by WDEL in August, included land in Brandywine Hundred along Concord Pike and a Dogfish commercial property in Sussex County, causing an uproar among local farmers.

"Preservation should be about preserving your land--that you want your land to stay within the farming realm in to perpetuity--it is not about greed and how much money you can get," said County Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick. "I would rather see the sewer and have it limited to a certain number of houses--which per the agreement it is--than to pay somebody $3.3 million for their piece of land that has absolutely no benefit for the public use."

A cost estimate from New Castle County's Department of Special Services, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, shows it would cost the county $2 million to build a sewer from Route 13 to Port Penn Road as required by a legal settlement. Conservationists like Dave Carter are thrilled the deal is dead.

"For the same amount of money, we could protect six times as much, and we know that we will not protect every square inch of land in southern New Castle County or in the state of Delaware, so you have to be really thoughtful and have a good program to maximize how much land you protect for the lowest amount of public dollars that you have to spend," said Carter.

Kilpatrick said she's relieved the deal is off the table, and hopefully, it paves the way for the county to develop what she called a true farmland preservation program over farmers that were "hand-picked."

"It was causing a rift between county council, the administration, and farmers," said Kilpatrick.

County Councilman Tim Sheldon, who's working to develop a transparent farmland preservation program couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Carter said the deal, as proposed, would've crippled future farmland preservation efforts in the entire state.

"I really don't think that these individuals (Lester and Warren) are that awfully concerned about long-term farming, I think they are concerned about maximizing profit. We have a lot of farmers that are good stewards...who are offering land at a discount," said Carter. "I think he (Lester) was looking for the best deal he could get to maximize everything, and it may not be that individuals like that are a good fit for a publicly-funded land conservation program."

Lester declined to disclose the purchase price of his farm, but said it was more than the $3 million he stood to make through New Castle County's deal; however, through New Castle County's deal Lester could still live on his farmland and till the land for profit. With his development deal, that can't happen.

"I got more from a developer than I ever would've gotten from this deal. I gave up a lot to do it (the county deal) so I'm getting my money back, and I'll go elsewhere and live," he said.

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

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