by Terry Rogers
On Monday, May 28 Milford City Council approved a request from Winward Communities to build a retail and restaurant development on Rehoboth Boulevard. The development would be located on the Simpson Property where the former mini golf course and batting cages were located. The property is owned by Janet Swain, Gilbert and Irene Simpson as well as Jesse and Joyce Webb.
“The applicant proposes to construct a shopping center containing two restaurant buildings, three retail buildings and an office building,” Rob Pierce, City Planner, said. “The Board of Adjustments approved the project on September 13, 2018, but required a 15-foot buffer area with a landscape screen and/or fence or wall at a minimum of 6-feet high to separate from any lot zoned as residential. The majority of the property is commercial and only the parcel where a house sits is residential. The applicant is requesting that the entire parcel become commercial.”
Councilman Mike Boyle expressed concerns about a commercial district being placed in the middle of what is now a residential neighborhood. He noted that except for the previous batting cages on the side of the creek, the property is surrounded by residential property and he is concerned about signage as well as the added density.
“Commercial property permits all kinds of non-conducive businesses and can disrupt the surrounding area,” Councilman Boyle said. “We are currently reviewing a signage code which may eliminate signage problems, but there seems to be very little control right now with the signs that exist on Route 1. Immediately across the street, to the south and to the north is all residential.” Councilman Boyle thought that rather than approving the change in zoning, a conditional use may be a better option.
Pierce explained that downzoning the property without following the normal zoning procedures could lead to consequences. He explained that the property owner can file a petition and that it could appear as if the City was taking property rights. City Solicitor David Rutt agreed with Pierce, stating that Council had an application before them and they could either approve or deny it. If they denied the application, they could suggest to the applicant that they apply for a conditional use but the current application must be addressed first.
The applicant is also planning a residential component as part of the development but the two sites were separated by the Planning Department in order to better manage the two different uses of the site. Windward on the River is the residential portion of the site and will have an entrance on Beaver Dam Road while the commercial district will have an entrance on Rehoboth Boulevard. Councilman Dan Marabello asked what options were available to Council to alleviate these concerns.
“Reasonable conditions can be placed regarding hours of operation, etc.,” Pierce said. “I believe you could also place restrictions on sign size. I know there was some discussion of signage , mainly due to parking and the orientation of the building. Sign size allowance is 28 feet and 225 square feet. The only residential portion of this land is a small sliver that will be the landscaped buffer of the project. The Planning Commission did not recommend any conditions on the applicant.”
Councilman Todd Culotta pointed out that Rehoboth Boulevard was originally developed for business and commercial uses. As the City developed, more residential areas were designated, although most of them were farther south than this property. Although he understands that the road is very busy and there are already many commercial uses on the road, Councilman Culotta does not feel Council should limit business in the area.
Ring Lardner of Davis Bowen and Friedel, explained to Council that signage has not been developed although the 40-mile per hour speed limit on the road will be considered when the signage is created. He also explained that they were before Council because they want to do more than one type of building on the commercial property and that any signage would meet City Code.
“The sign is not a major hang up,” Councilman Boyle said. “My concern is that this is a substantial shopping center in the middle of a residential neighborhood, that theoretically could be a 24/7 operation and involves lights and noise and everything related. I am looking out for my constituents and as a resident of that area. There is no need for a bar that will be active until three in the morning and we don’t need trucks coming in and out at all hours of the night. I don’t want to see a gas station and that is something that could be permitted under this zoning.”
Councilman Doug Morrow explained that from Seawatch south on Rehoboth Boulevard, there are businesses, including Rumpstich which is just north of this property.
“There is a need and I don’t think the owner’s intent is to have a business operating 24 hours a day,” Councilman Morrow said. “I am unaware of any shopping center that is open 24 hours a day except for supermarkets. I agree with Councilman Culotta that we need to encourage new businesses and continue our business-friendly, compatible, already on the book zoning areas.”
Doug Motley of Windward Communities told Council that the company plans to make a $40 million investment. He explained that they are vested in making sure whatever is created on the property is not intrusive or a problem for the residents since they plan to add 264 residences directly adjacent to the commercial property. Lardner explained that the developer has created commercial properties throughout Kent and Sussex Counties. Although he is unable to make promises, Lardner believes they will bring something very nice to Milford.
Councilman Jason James questioned the developer about the intended hours of operation. Lardner explained that restaurants are typically open from 11 AM until 11 PM and possibly 1 AM on weekends. Some retail locations may open as early as 7 AM and remain open later than 11 PM.
“As for the office building, some can open as early as 7 AM and close as late as 7 PM,” Lardner said. “I have people coming in to work at my office as early as 4 AM and there are some still there right now after 7 PM. I cannot limit office hours completely. Councilman James did not believe there was intention to add a 24-hour per day operation like a grocery or convenience store. Solicitor Rutt asked if the developer would be willing to a condition regarding the sign and Lardner said they could not commit to that at the time since there has been no plan developed.
“Here we go again, discouraging investment in Milford,” Councilman Culotta said. “In this case, there are two investors wanting to spend $40 million here. It is very easy for Council to make conditions and push all the development out to the highway and say ‘well, it is out there and it is loud and it is noisy and that is where it should be.’ We don’t know if that is the case here but it does not look that way from the drawing. I appreciate Mike’s concern about the impact on the residential neighborhood area, but I think it is important to business and believes it will actually draw traffic downtown which will ramp up foot traffic. It could also improve the Downtown Development District which is all part of downtown Milford. I feel the concerns can be addressed at a later date when a restaurant wants to go in there.”
The measure passed with a vote of 6 to 0. Councilman Marabello reluctantly voted yes under the hope that the “developer will create something nice.” Councilman Boyle agreed and hopes that this development will improve the City’s corridor along Rehoboth Boulevard.
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