On Monday, October 24, Milford City Council agreed with a recommendation from the Planning Commission to deny a request from Key Properties, LLC to rezone approximately 110 acres of land east of Route 1 as highway commercial. Currently, the parcels are zoned low-density residential. Another parcel of nine acres is zoned highway commercial and is adjacent to the parcels considered. A public workshop was held on October 12, 2016 to provide area residents with details of what the changes could mean.
On Tuesday, October 18, Milford Planning Commission held a public hearing regarding the proposed zoning changes. More than 40 people were in attendance at the meeting who were opposed to the zoning change with only one resident in favor of the plan. Another public hearing before City Council had more than 60 people in opposition to the proposal in attendance.
City Planner, Rob Pierce, explained that Key Properties had requested rezoning of a piece of land known as the Mr. Wiggles property as well as annexation of another parcel known as the Thawley property in October 2014. In November 2014, it was determined that the request did not comply with the Comprehensive Plan and Southeast Master Plan. In August 2017, Key Properties submitted a request to amend the Southeast Master Plan, changing the parcels to highway/commercial. In December 2015, the Office of Planning recommended that the request not be approved due to access issues and the proximity to residential areas that include Knollac Acres.
“As it stands now, the only access to the property is on Bucks Road,” Mr. Pierce explained. “Key Properties and I met with DelDOT in August 2016. Because the property owner is unsure what will actually be built on the land, DelDOT cannot give any affirmative answers regarding access. They have stated that they do not want any access from Route 1, but that there may be some reconfigurations that could provide adequate access to this property if it is zoned highway/commercial. Basically, the state says that gaining access would be difficult, but not impossible.”
According to Jim Griffin, attorney for Key Properties, the lands in question were zoned highway/commercial prior in the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, but were changed to low-density residential in the 2011 Comprehensive Plan. He said that Key Properties was simply asking council to return the property to what it was in 2008.
“Many of the comments heard at the Planning Commission meeting were issues you normally do not deal with until site plan review,” Mr. Griffin said. “The Planning Commission, when they voted six to zero not to approve the request, picked and chose comments from the 2011 PLUS comments while disregarding the 2016 PLUS comments. Their decision was simply not based on Delaware Code. Key Properties purchased this land in hopes to continue a project that was originally going to be on the land that will now be used for the new hospital. He simply wants to replace what was lost when the hospital chose to relocate in that area.”
Mark Muller of Sienna US, who works in partnership with KLMB Properties, an organization that retail development, said that the area, which is visible from Route 1, would be attractive to higher-end retail stores, such as Target or Kohls. He also said that there had been requests from Milford residents for additional casual dining and that chains like Cheddars would also find the location suitable, especially with the hospital campus across the highway. Mr. Muller also said that a movie theater chain had expressed interest in locating in that area.
David Rutt, Council for the City of Milford, asked Mr. Griffin if the land for the hospital had been gifted to them or if Key Properties sold the land for a profit. Mr. Griffin acknowledged that the land was sold to the hospital. Mr. Rutt also asked if Key Properties purchased the parcels in question knowing that they were zoned as residential. Mr. Griffin stated that they were aware that the property zoning had changed and that it was residential, not commercial.
Only one person spoke out in favor of the zoning change. Henry Hathaway who lives in Hearthstone Manor, said that he sent out emails to all residents on record in the development. He received 24 responses and only one of those responses were negative. He felt that returning the property to what it was in 2008 was the right thing for the City to do.
“I came here ten years ago from upstate New York,” Debbie Campbell, who also lives in Hearthstone Manor, said. “I bought my home so I could be in the country. Everything I want is within seven minutes of my home. If I do need something special, Dover and Rehoboth are only a 30-minute ride. Change is good, but change has to be planned well and it has to be wanted. We don’t want this in our backyards.”
Kay Webb, whose family owns a Century Farm on Cedar Neck Road said that she would hope that Council would protect the agricultural aspect of the area in question. Bill Pfaffenhauser who lives in Hearthstone Manor said that traffic was already going to increase with the new hospital and changing the area near the overpass at Wilkins Road could result in accidents similar to what the overpass was installed to avoid.
“I believe the owner of this property has not been paying attention to the financial news lately,” Lucius Webb, a real estate agent in Milford, said. “Retail is on the demise as more people shop online. K’Mart and Sears are almost out of business. Kohls has closed many of their locations. Milford does not have an economic base to support those types of retail stores. If the applicant wants to put in a Cheddars, there is plenty of space available up near Grotto’s”
In a vote of six to zero, City Council voted with the Planning Commission recommendation to deny the applicant’s request. Councilman Chris Mergner said that the proposal did not make sense and that, although he would like to see more commercial ventures in Milford, he wanted to be sure it was planned the right way. He did not feel this was properly planned.
“This is too close to developments, there are no access roads and, in reading the letter from the state that opposed this back in 2015, many red flags flew up,” said Councilman Archie Campbell. “As a former Planning Commission member, I know they looked at this closely and my vote is to uphold their decision.
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