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Preserving the Town of Elsmere from Unwanted Noise and Air Pollution

Elsmere Action Committee and the Coalition of Communities Affected by Chessie v. Chessie Systems, Inc.

In August, 1983, officials from Chessie Systems, Inc., formerly the Chesapeake and Ohio, and Baltimore and Ohio Railroads, announced a planned $33 million expansion of its then existing Wilsmere switching yard in Elsmere, Delaware. The expansion required a rezoning of 17 acres adjoining the property as well as some specific building permits. The project’s intent was to convert the yard to a “containerized freight terminal,” better known as a piggyback operation. When completed the project would result in approximately 1000 trucks per day bringing containers to the yard which would be picked up by specialized cranes and placed on flatbed train cars. (This process was relatively new in 1983.)

Two closely related citizens groups were formed in opposition: the Elsmere Action Committee and the Coalition of Communities Affected by Chessie. These communities sought out Morris James for representation. In April of 1984, a crowd of 700-800 people showed up for a public hearing in the Elsmere Fire Hall. Chessie officials spoke of the many advantages of the project including jobs, and the potential of adding $100 million to the Elsmere area economy. Morris James, on behalf of the community, spoke of the immeasurable loss of the quality of life to the nearby residents caused primarily by air pollution and 24/7 noise. In the following year, on a small budget Morris James retained an expert in noise abatement to do battle with Chessie’s experts. Virtually every politician in Delaware weighed in including Governor Mike Castle, and County Executive Karen Peterson. The primary venue for the battle was the New Castle County Planning Board which had to approve the 17 acre rezoning application.

In August of 1985, the rezoning was denied. Chessie in response approached Morris James to resolve the conflict, including building sound barriers, threatening to close down the switching yard completely and suggesting they could build the piggyback operation without the rezoning. None of these tactics swayed the opposition and the matter appeared to be headed for an appeal to the Superior Court. In May 1986, without a prior hint, Chessie abandoned the project and announced that it would build the operation in New Jersey. There was much celebration in Elsmere. As a result the firm became counsel to the Town of Elsmere, a representation that continues to this day, and that has led to the firm establishing precedents which remain as persuasive authority in municipal law as the two examples below reflect:

  • Elsmere Park Club LP v. Town of Elsmere, 542 F.2d 412 ( 3rd Cir. 2008) (oft-cited decision holding that a municipality may take remedial action without a prior hearing to prevent a nuisance upon a showing of serious and imminent harm as long as it provides a fair hearing to the property owner to appeal the action taken)
  • New Castle County Council v. BC Development Associates, 567 A2d 1271 (Del. 1989) (leading Delaware case holding that an administrative body must state on the record sufficient reasons for its decision; the record must be adequate to permit review by the courts)

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