Planning Commission Denies Apartment Request

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Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 10.23.49 PMBy Terry Rogers

On Tuesday, April 21, Milford Planning Commission denied a zoning request from Mispillion Street Partners to build a Planned Residential Use Development (PURD) that would be known as Riverwalk Villas. The request was to allow the developer to build a three-building, 48 unit apartment complex at 401 Mispillion Street, on the Mispillion River.

At the opening of the public hearing regarding the request, City Solicitor David Rutt explained that he had received a call from Lisa Anderson, an attorney representing Sudler and Joan Lofland who owned properties adjacent to the proposed complex. “Ms. Anderson explained that the limited liability corporation applying for this conditional use has been cancelled by the State of Delaware,” Mr. Rutt said. “That cancellation does not mean this meeting must be postponed as this board makes a recommendation to council, they do not make the decision. I do strongly suggest that the applicant get this matter straightened out before it goes to council, however.”

City Manager, Hans Medlarz, explained that the applicant had completed a utility feasibility study and implemented all comments requested by the City. He said that throughout the planning process, Mispillion Street Partners had made adjustments that were requested by the City. Scott Atkinson of Davis, Bowen and Friedel explained that the units met the City requirements for parking spaces and units per acre.

“What this commission needs to determine, however, is whether this meets the criteria of a PURD,” Mr. Atkinson explained. “To qualify, there must be commercial, recreational and community facilities. There is a kayak rental that has been added near the pool house that could qualify as commercial but that is the only commercial enterprise on the plan.” Chairman Jamie Burk mentioned that he thought the kayak rental was added as an afterthought to meet the commercial requirements and Mr. Atkinson agreed.

Mr. Rutt explained that the City code defined a PURD as “a development providing housing of various densities, lot sizes, lot coverage and types, including related commercial, recreational and community facilities.” He said that the goal of the commission that night was to determine whether or not the plan met the requirements of a PURD.

Chairman Burk read a letter from Brad Dennehy, Director of Milford Parks & Recreation, that stated the developers had met with him and other Parks & Recreation staff members regarding the project. During the meeting, the developer mentioned that they wanted to ‘do something’ for the city so they were willing to install a public restroom and provide a storage building for City use on the property. Mr. Dennehy explained that there was no agreement between Parks & Recreation and the developer, stating that he nor his department approved or disapproved of the project, but that he felt full disclosure had to be made before the commission before decisions were made.

Todd Fritchman, an engineer with Envirotech, told the commission that he had conducted a wetland investigation on the property and found that the apartment complex may actually help improve the wetlands in the area. He said that the developers planned to tie into the existing Riverwalk and would be placing signage along the wetlands with information about the wildlife that inhabited the area.

Chairman Burk asked who would be handling the kayak rentals and Don Lockwood, a partner in the development, explained that they had discussed several options, including leasing the space for the rental to an outside company or allowing the City to operate the kayak rentals. Mr. Medlarz explained that the commission could add a condition that there be a partnership agreement between the City and the developer regarding the kayak rental if the City was interested in operating the service.

Roger Gross, the engineer for the project, explained that the complex would be tied into the existing Fisher Avenue water/sewer services and that there would need to be some improvements to the City’s services in the area. He said that the developer was willing to work with the City on the upgrades and that maintenance of the wetlands and other services necessary would fall to the owners when the project was completed. Mark Schaeffer, a licensed real estate broker who would be handling the marketing of the property, explained that Delaware legislators passed a law recently that required real estate agents to provide the purchaser with any costs above the purchase price at the time the contract for the property is signed.

“This means that there are no surprises later when costs are incurred to maintain sewer, water or other types of systems for housing complexes,” Mr. Schaeffer explained. “As a real estate agent, it is my opinion that this project will do nothing more than enhance the area. This will continue the vision that Ronnie Rogers and Gary Emory started of a beautiful, connected Riverwalk. It will bring people to the river, it will increase pedestrian traffic in the city and it could be a significant economic benefit to Milford.”

Ms. Anderson said that the Lofland’s want to make it clear that they were not opposed to development in the City and that they had personally donated lands to the city near the Riverwalk. The Lofland’s own the Vineyard Shipyard as well as the old spoon mill and other properties surrounding the land where the project would be built.

“This is not a PURD,” Ms. Anderson said. “The developers have been told repeatedly it is not a PURD and they have attempted to get around that by adding a last-minute kayak rental in a percentage of the pool house so the city could lease it. There is no need for this variance if the developer simply wants to build apartments. They are trying to build bigger buildings so they can have more apartments. In addition, there are a lot of things happening at the eleventh hour that are very vague, like meetings with Mr. Dennehy just last week to offer a deal.”

Chairman Burk explained that Mr. Dennehy’s letter clearly indicated that the developer offered to do ‘something for the city’, but that no agreement was made. Mr. Dennehy explained that he had met with the developer and that it had been recently because he had been out of town on vacation when they wanted to meet before. He explained that the City would love to have public restrooms near the Riverwalk, but that his department was neither for or against the project. He sent the letter to Chairman Burk because he felt there should be full disclosure of his conversations with the developers.

Jackie Baney, a homeowner who lives on Front Street near Mispillion Street where the complex would be built said that she was concerned about the narrow streets in that area. She said that the streets already made it difficult for cars to travel and that additional traffic would make the issue worse. She also said that the price range of the condominiums, which Mr. Lockwood said was between $250,000 and $300,000, was unreasonable in a depressed area. She explained that most of the homeowners in that area were low income who could not afford to make major improvements to their homes in order to bring them up to the level of the apartment complexes.

George Klunchesky, another homeowner who lived in the area, was concerned about the Fisher Street pumping station which was not operating properly. “There are times the smell from the pumping station is so bad, I cannot open my windows,” Mr. Klunchesky said. “It can’t handle the amount of water running through it now, how can it handle 48 more apartments?”

Mr. Lofland mentioned that the area was in a floodplain and that water that is displaced must go somewhere. Mr. Medlarz explained that the project met the requirements of the recently adopted floodplain ordinance and that there did not appear to be danger of additional flooding due to the complex. He also explained that the City was monitoring the Fisher Avenue pumping station closely.

Four members of the Planning Commission voted against the conditional use application, stating that the project did not meet the definition of a PURD. Chairman Burk abstained due to a question from Ms. Anderson regarding his recent election to city council. All members of the commission stated that they voted no as the project did not have commercial use and had only one particular type of housing so that it did not meet the qualifications set forth by city ordinance.