Residents give hands down to zoning change request

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The Chronicle/Jennifer Antonik

MILFORD — “Obviously we have a lot of people here tonight. Everybody will be given an opportunity to be heard,” City Solicitor David Rutt told the crowd as the Milford City Council public hearing for the “third amendment to the Southeast Master Plan” began.

Planning & Economic Activities Coordinator Rob Pierce explained that the properties in question equate to about 120-acres including the “Beverly Thawley,” and “Mr. Wiggles” properties located on the east side of Rt. 1 near the new Bayhealth campus.

If approved, the requested amendment would change the zoning of the Mr. Wiggles property from R-2 to highway commercial, or C-3. The Thawley property, just south of the Mr. Wiggles property, would need to be annexed into the city of Milford. Nine-acres of the Thawley property already exists inside the city of Milford along the same stretch of highway and is zoned C-3.

Before Milford resident and lawyer Jim Griffin with Griffin & Robertson, P.A. explained the applicant’s request further, he urged council members to consider the definition for “comprehensive plan” as read from Delaware code Title 22, 702, earlier in the meeting by Mr. Rutt.

“At the very end of it, it talks about all the things you consider,” he began.

“Then it said, ‘in the judgement of the municipality best promotes the health, safety, prosperity and general public welfare of the jurisdictions residents. Keep in mind that the jurisdiction is the city of Milford.”

Mr. Griffin went on to say he did not feel the Planning Commission held the same concepts in high regards after hearing it’s 6-0 vote against the zooming request.

“18 folks spoke against this proposal. Of those 18, 14 were non-residents of the city. Only 22 percent of the people who spoke were residents of your city. Four people,” he emphasized.

“It’s a pay to play proposition. You’re not promoting quality of life for people outside of its borders. Delaware’s law is pretty clear on that that you’re talking about what’s best for the city’s residents.”

The Delaware code also states, “The comprehensive planning process shall demonstrate coordination with other municipalities, the county and the State during plan preparation.”

Mr. Griffin’s presentation

During the public hearing, Mr. Griffin gave a presentation to council members and those in attendance, including two witnesses and a petition signed by 41 people with 39 of them residing within city limits among other submissions.

“Under your 2008 comprehensive plan, all of these three pieces, 120 odd acres, were shown as C-3 highway commercial. It’s not as if these three properties have never been C-3 highway commercial. The newer comprehensive plan essentially downgraded the lands,” he explained.

Speaking of the Planning Commission’s recent vote, he added that members “picked and chose negative comments out of the 2015 PLUS review and didn’t really give any play to the 2016 PLUS comments which are more favorable.”

According to Mr. Griffin, the applicant originally had plans for a C-3 property he owned, but sold to Bayhealth for its newest facility in southest Milford.

“My client wants to relocate the commercial zoning they had for the Bayhealth parcel of 160-acres to the 120-acres that make up the Thawley and Wiggles property,” he said. “He would clearly like to fulfill that dream on the other side of the road on Rt. 1, of course. You approved that on the other parcel back before it was sold to Bayhealth.”

Key Properties purchased the land on the east side of Rt. 1 in 2011 after the comprehensive plan downgraded the land to a residential zoning in the same year. Mr. Rutt said “there was a realization” of the loss of the commercial property nearby when the applicant sold it to Bayhealth.

Only five hands were raised in favor of the zoning request east of U.S. Rt. 1. The Chronicle/Jennifer Antonik

Only five hands were raised in favor of the zoning request east of U.S. Rt. 1. The Chronicle/Jennifer Antonik

Voting on the unknown

The many unknown factors to what could end up on the site along Rt. 1 seemed to leave the majority of the room uncomfortable.

“We’re not here tonight to tell you what my client is going to do. It’s all theoretical. It would be moot,” Mr. Griffin said, adding that he does know, however, that the applicant would be paying “his fair share” of infrastructure costs and other fees associated with the project.

Site plans, however, are not required when requesting a revision of the comprehensive plan, he said.

For council member Archie Campbell, many red flags came up when reading comments from state agencies regarding the proposed zoning change.

“There’s too many unanswered questions and you’re not giving me any information that I can handle,” he said.

Debbie Campbell offered a different perspective during the public hearing.

“I feel a little betrayed here. I bought my home from Country Life Homes. I want to live in the country and have the life that Milford has offered us. And it upsets me that the applicant sold me on that,” she said.

Others spoke of safety, legal and quality of life issues surrounding the proposal.

Sarah Donald, a Shawnee Acres resident, said she is concerned one of Mr. Griffin’s witnesses would impact the area negatively.

“Mr. [Mark] Moller lives in Bel Air where I grew up,” she began to say of the real estate witness who spoke earlier in the meeting. “I go back there every year and I cannot stand the traffic. It was a lot like Milford. I saw the mayor at the food festival. That doesn’t happen in Bel Air. We don’t need a Cheddar’s. We need Abbott’s. We don’t need a Lowes. We go to Ace and travel when we need.”

Milford resident Lucius Webb offered another side to the real estate coin.

“We can be enticed to say we really need a Cheddars. But if we really need a Cheddars, Mr. Silicato has space up by the Grottos,” he said.

He said this year alone Wal-mart has closed more than 280 stores across the country, K-mart closed 78 and other chains such as Ralph Lauren and Macy’s also closed a number of stores.

“It’s a sad front. Milford doesn’t have the economic base needed for some of these retail. Stay focused. There is true promise for our community,” he urged council.

After one local resident spoke in favor of the rezoning request and more than 13 others spoke out against the request, the Milford City Council requested a showing of hands.

According to Mr. Rutt, five hands were raised in favor of the zoning change request. Sixty-seven were counted as against the measure.

After a motion by council member Lisa Peel to strike down the request, all six council members present for the meeting voted it down. Katrina Wilson and James Burk were absent.

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” council member Christopher Mergner said. “We do want change. We do want commercial. But it’s got to be done right.”

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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