Commission Approves Preliminary Comprehensive Plan

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By Terry Rogers

On Tuesday, May 15, the Milford Planning Commission approved the preliminary comprehensive plan for the City after hearing special requests from two businesses regarding zoning and language in the plan. The Commission voted to send the plan to the next step, a PLUS Review, with some minor adjustments after hearing presentations by Nationwide Health Care Services and Key Properties.

“A request was made after the land-use meetings were held that could impact the comprehensive plan,” Mr. Pierce said. “Nationwide Health Services has a contract with Bayhealth to purchase the Clarke Avenue facility which will be vacated when the new hospital is complete south of Milford,” City Planner Rob Pierce said. “Because the recommendations came in after the land use discussions, I suggested they attend tonight’s meeting and make the request in person. Their intention is to turn the current hospital facility into a skilled nursing care facility and they’ve purchased an additional 12 acres between the railroad tracks and the current hospital where there are currently some doctor’s offices, old houses, storage areas, parking areas and vacant lots.”

Mr. Pierce explained that the current hospital is zoned as Employment in the current comprehensive plan and the lots around it are zoned commercial. Nationwide Health Services was requesting that the surrounding areas be rezoned as high-density residential (R3) to allow them to add residences around their new facility. Alan Levin of Drinker, Biddle and Reath spoke on behalf of Nationwide who was unable to attend the Planning Commission meeting. Mr. Levin is an attorney representing Nationwide in the sale of the Clarke Avenue property.

“We initially requested that the hospital building be rezoned as an Institutional Medical (IM) district,” Mr. Levin said. “We understand that this is not a zoning specification under Milford’s code so it would require changing the code to add the designation. As for the surrounding parcels, Nationwide is looking at different variations. They are considering making it a 55 and older community, which under Delaware law would allow for up to 20 percent of individuals living there to be under 55. We are also looking at residential for employees working at the healthcare center, allowing them to walk to work. We are talking to several developers, including Milford Housing as Nationwide has a strong commitment to using Delaware-based contractors for this project.”

Mr. Pierce explained that the hospital zoning would not change and would remain employment but that the Commission was being asked to rezone the areas surrounding the hospital as residential in order to better meet the needs of Nationwide Health Services as they continue to go through the due diligence process with Bayhealth to purchase the Clarke Avenue property.

Jim Myerly, Director of Operations for Key Properties, spoke to the Commission about adding wording regarding two parcels of land owned by Key Properties on the east side of Route 1 near the new hospital campus. Mr. Myerly read the language the company was asking to be inserted in the plan.

“The plan recognizes there is a nine-acre parcel on the east side of Route 1 in the southeast district currently zoned highway commercial,” Mr. Myerly read. “Currently, there is a utility review being done for two hotels and a restaurant on this nine-acre parcel. The plan also recognizes that there is 200 plus or minus acres zoned for institutional use in hat area and Key Properties Group is currently in ongoing negotiations with potential users of this site. The plan recognizes that the City plans to implement a process to review comprehensive plan amendment requests once each year, which may be needed to harmonize the development plans of Key Properties Group with this comprehensive plan.”

Several Commissioners expressed concerns that the language was too specific to Key Properties to be included in a plan that was designed for the entire City, stating that it would be better to create a generic statement. Commissioner Sara Pletcher said that the first and second paragraph read by Mr. Myerly should not be included in the plan but that the plan should include a process to review the plan each year, but with no company name included.

“Ms. Pletcher is right,” City Solicitor David Rutt said. “The first two are too specific for a general discussion because it indicates there is a nine-acre parcel currently zoned highway commercial, which is fine, but then it goes on to a utility review for two hotels and a restaurant. What happens if that falls through? Now you have it in the plan and that really doesn’t fit. It recognizes there is commercial in this plan and secondly for the institutional use says Key Properties is in ongoing negotiations. What if this falls through or Key Properties sells to XYZ Company. You are locked in now to this language. You don’t need those first two paragraphs in there.”

Mr. Myerly explained that the description in the plan is vague and that Key Properties wanted it to be more specific. He said that the current plan proposes substantial preservation of open space on Southbound Route 1 except for parcels across from the Bayhealth facility and a few existing residential areas.

“It leaves out the act that there is already commercial property and I think it is important for the purposes of planning to acknowledged the 200 acres is actively being negotiated in terms of planning,” Mr. Myerly said. “I understand removing Key Properties from the wording, but we are at the position where nationwide, Bayhealth and the City were a few years ago. With the exciting things happening with Bayhealth, there is interest in that property for planning. It is important that it is called out in the document.” Commissioner Pletcher said that she recalled discussing that property as part of the plan.

Mr. Pierce explained that the process to update the comprehensive plan began in April 2016. Surveys were sent to citizens requesting input into areas where the City may need to make some improvements. Some of the suggestions were that the City needed to focus on creating more park space, specifically in the Southeast area, increase property maintenance and code enforcement as well as address parking issues downtown.

“There were concerns regarding truck traffic downtown as well,” Mr. Pierce said. “Both the parking and truck traffic issues are actively being worked on by the City. Street-scaping and beautification is also being addressed by the City. There were requests to consider mixed-use commercial and residential developments, additional small retail and other things for residents downtown. There was some concern about urban growth with suggestions that the City should focus growth within current boundaries.” Commissioner Pletcher asked if the plan expanded outside the boundaries and Mr. Pierce explained that it did not, that expansion remained in current boundaries of the City.

After approval of the plan which included the zoning changes requested by Nationwide Health Services, except for the change to the hospital building, and clarifying wording that the changes to the plan could be reviewed on an annual basis, Mr. Pierce explained that a public hearing will be held before City Council on June 22 prior to the submission of the draft plan to PLUS Review.

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