City of Milford details its side of eminent domain case

Betsy PriceGovernment, Headlines


A move by the Milford City Council to condemn and take land outside its border is getting huge backlash, including this billboard that went up Friday. Photo by Katie Kazimir.

The City of Milford issued a statement Wednesday afternoon that explains how the controversial Annette Billings eminent domain case came about.

It says Billings is only the trustee for the property, among other things. It also says the council finally voted for eminent domain because it felt obligated to in order to meet resident request for parkland and recreational opportunities.

Efforts were not immediately successful to reach Billings or her lawyer for comment.

This is the city statement:

“In response to concerns raised regarding the acquisition of property by eminent domain, this statement is meant to clarify basic facts around the filing.

“The City of Milford filed an action to acquire a parcel of real property by eminent domain. The parcel is an 8 acre tract that was formed as a separate parcel when the entire Sharp farm was subdivided in 2013 and the parcel was given its own tax parcel number of 330-11.00-39.11. The recorded plan identified as “Minor Lot Line Adjustment for the Estate of Betty F. Sharp (Trustee)” has an Owner’s Certification signed by Mrs. Billings which reads:

“I, Annette Billings, hereby certify that I am the owner of the property described and shown on this plan, that the plan was made at my direction, and that I acknowledge the same to be my act and desire the plan to be developed as shown in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.”

“The parcel the City has offered to buy from Mrs. Billings is identified on the recorded subdivision plan as “Wetland Area” and has an assessed value of zero on the Sussex County Assessment records. No taxes have been assessed or paid on the parcel since its formation.

“Parcel 1 of this subdivision is the tract the City purchased from Herman W. Sharp III (Billings’ brother) for a City park in this area of the City. The City’s acquisition of the 8 acre tract would allow access from the previously purchased Sharp tract to the Rookery property path and the Watergate development, as well as a connecting path across Deep Branch to the Mispillion and Lulu Ross schools, and eventually to the Lear Hall tract (315 Claude Street) which is owned by the City.

“It was important that the path network provided children and adults access to the proposed park as well as the two schools, without the need of a vehicle.

“The 8 acre parcel is titled in the name of the Herman W. Sharp, Jr. Trust and the Betty F. Sharp Trust. Mrs. Billings is the trustee. Herman W. Sharp III … has stated to the City Solicitor he is a beneficiary of the trusts and entitled to share in the proceeds of the acquisition. He does not oppose the City’s ownership of the 8 acre tract.

“The parcel’s entire western side of the 8 acre parcel borders the City of Milford municipal boundary. The eastern border is shared between other property in the Sharp trusts, property owned by the City and a tract owned by Mrs. Billings.

“Only about 15 percent (15%) of the total boundary of the 8 acre parcel, and all of that on the northern end is shared with the other lands of the Sharp trusts or the parcel owned by Mrs. Billings. The owner of the largest tract sharing a boundary with the 8 acre parcel is the City of Milford.

“In developing the City’s Strategic Plan in 2021, the City sought input from citizens on what changes were desired to make Milford an even better place to live. While the list was long, the most sought-after amenities included more park land, open space, walking/biking trails and both passive and active recreational opportunities for both children and adults.

“As part of the City’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Strategic Plan, City staff and Council considered several undeveloped sites within or abutting the City that could be preserved as a “green way” to provide both active and passive recreation. In 2020, the City of Milford contemplated the purchase of the former Rookery property to preserve that land as a green way in lieu of a proposed housing development project.

“Additionally, the City looked at preserving areas along Marshall Pond, and Herring and Deep Branch creeks, supplementing land owned by the City on the north side of Marshall Pond. The Herring Branch Greenway would connect undeveloped land between Rehoboth Boulevard and Marshall Street/Elks Lodge Road with possible extensions to Walnut Street, abutting Herring Branch creek.

“In 2021, the City contracted with a landscape architect to provide a preliminary concept sketch for public discussion of how such a greenway could be developed and used as park land. It included playgrounds, sports fields, a community center, pool, walking/bike paths, parking lots, and open space. At the same time, Herman W. Sharp, III was selling his 19.43 acre property conveyed to him by Mrs. Billings as trustee from their parents’ trusts which had access to Rehoboth Boulevard.

“While the Sharp property was outside the City limits, it was in very close proximity to the City boundary and the Rookery golf course and helped satisfy a need for parkland in the southeast portion of the City. The land was also in concert with the City’s Strategic Plan and Comprehensive Land Use Plan which City Council adopted unanimously. City Council also unanimously voted for the City to purchase the Sharp tract in 2021, which was part of the Sharp Farm.

“As part of the overall master plan for the possible development of this area, the landscape architect depicted walking paths that would connect several developments to the Mispillion and Lulu Ross schools. Those developments included Watergate, Orchard Hill, Shawnee Acres, and Hearthstone Since then other developments have been approved in the Southeast quadrant of the City including Windward by the River, Knights Crossing and Wickersham.

“The plan also provided a path through open space along Herring and Deep Branch creeks that connected Rehoboth Boulevard, Marshall Street, Elks Lodge Road and Lexington Drive. The path network would also enable residents from developments to walk/bike downtown without the need to use Rehoboth Boulevard and Elks Lodge Road/Marshall Street, with much of the trail traversing open space. Overall, the trail network provided over 3 miles of pathways.

“Negotiations between the City and the Rookery ended when an offer was made to the owners with the intent of continuing to operate it as a golf course. The city considered this a windfall since it would provide a recreational option within City limits and allow the City to use funds elsewhere to further expand recreational activities. The City has met several times with the new owner to discuss the potential of a walking/biking path along the west side of the property. Fruitful discussions are ongoing.

“The City also has a verbal agreement with the Watergate developer for the City to construct a path along its property that would connect Marshall Street and the Rookery property.”

“In 2023, the City contracted with a second landscape architect for a design of the Sharp tract purchased by the City. His concept plan included walking/biking paths that will connect to Rehoboth Boulevard as well as a playground, playing fields, open space and a parking lot.

“The only missing link in connecting all of the paths and recreation areas was the 8 acre tract titled in the name of the Sharp trusts. The City originally contacted the
Trustee, Mrs. Billings, in 2021 regarding purchasing all 25 acres of her property to be included in the greenway project. An appraisal was completed, and an offer was extended to Mrs.

“Billings. Mrs. Billings at that time stated that she thought the City was only interested in the wetlands portion of the property. Mrs. Billings agreed to meet with the City to discuss different alternatives but failed to show for the meeting. An attempt was made to reschedule, but no return call was received.

“The City met with several other property owners regarding the potential greenway project who were shown the landscape architect sketches.

“In Spring, 2023 another appraisal was performed specifically to value the 8 acre tract. Despite there being no value assessed to the tract on the tax records, the licensed Delaware real estate appraiser determined a value of $15,000.00 for the parcel. The appraisal was provided to Mrs. Billings with an offer in excess of the appraised value.

“She refused the offer but indicated she would discuss it with a local realtor and get back to the City if she reconsidered. She did not do so. Her brother, Herman W. Sharp III, a beneficiary of the trust, represents he was unaware of the offers extended by the City.

“In September 2023, Council met in executive session to discuss alternatives to the impasse with Mrs. Billings. The City Manager and City Solicitor presented that eminent domain may be the only recourse remaining, or Council could forgo the greenway and connected path concept. Council voted 7-1 in open session to proceed with eminent domain solely on the 8 acre wetland area without disturbing the upland area on the remainder of the Sharp farm.

“They concluded they were obligated to proceed by the express wishes of the City residents to provide more recreation options. Thereafter the procedures set forth in the Delaware Code were followed by the City Solicitor in filing with the Court.

“Over the last four years, City Council and Staff’s only interest in pursuing the project was with the intent of providing open space and walking/biking paths, as well as other passive and active recreational opportunities for not only now, but far into the future, which addressed what we heard from citizens in 2021.”



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