At a recent meeting, Milford City Council streamlined the approval process for subdivision of land while also putting an expiration on preliminary review comments. The changes were designed to align the subdivision review process with site plan review.
“So, final site plan reviews currently are reviewed and approved administratively by the planning director, city engineer and city manager. We would also do that for the final major subdivision approval,” Rob Pierce, City Planner, said. “So, that language has been updated as well.”
Councilman Mike Boyle cautioned allowing final approvals to be made without council input.
“I agree with subdivisions. I’m sorry major subdivisions,” Councilman Boyle said. “So, we are very fortunate. We have a very honest, very thoughtful city planner, city manager who I trust implicitly. I’ve only been here six years; others have been here longer. I think we could incur more problems and wonder where was the oversight? Are we in danger of putting ourselves in a position of not knowing things?”
Councilman Boyle continued that he was not opposed to streamlining the process, but he wanted council to be aware of what could happen should council be removed from the final process. He felt there should be wording that would trigger bringing the final site plan back to council due to specific changes.
“But the point of that is, and I certainly understand your argument is we’re trying to simplify the process and the cost in order to invest in Milford in a sense,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “And when we give a preliminary approval, we meet a whole lot of criteria that says once you meet all that criteria you can move forward. It’s kind of redundant to come back and then say let’s give us your final approval. And if there’s any changes to your original plan approval, he’ll kick it back and say it’s gonna go back to the council.”
Councilman Boyle again stated that this was dependent on a forthcoming city planner in the future to which Councilman Culotta pointed out that the city manager would also be involved in the decision.
“I concur with Councilman Culotta but I do hear what Councilman Boyle is saying but I think if we were to say, okay, it does have to come back to council, we still have the issue of time, the time it takes to get back to council,” Councilman Jason James said. “We have such a lag in between. I mean you have people waiting just to get back on the agenda to go through another cycle. If we can fix that, then it needs to happen so we’re not putting a burden on the contractor or the applicant. I think it’s too great of a burden right now with the time it takes to get back to council.”
Councilman Boyle stated that he may not be making himself clear, that he did not intend to make it more difficult for the developer, but that the code was written so that it was the city planner’s decision to bring it back to council due to substantive changes. He felt that there needed to be wording that would trigger council’s involvement, so council was not blindsided in the future.
“So, our preliminary review process is fairly thorough. We don’t put anything on the agenda until it complies with the ordinance, or they’ve asked for their waivers, or they’ve obtained variances or whatever it might be. So, you know, it isn’t just a one pass through and then it’s on the agenda. A lot of times there’s three or four months lead up for the subdivisions to come before council,” Pierce said. “Some site plans are a little quicker because they are smaller scale. But by the time that comes before the Planning Commission and City Council for preliminary, the majority of the two dimensional features are nailed down and any of their off-site improvements that are required for sewer, water, generally electric, they have an idea for the most part of all those are completed really between preliminary and final, the major things they’re going after.
Pierce continued that there may be other items that are already included on a preliminary site plan that are fairly involved.
“Are there conditions that need to be placed plan approval. So, that’s your grading, your elevations, your sewer lines, your water lines, the road profiles, generally doesn’t affect the two dimensional features, really shouldn’t affect entrance locations even because a lot of time they’ve already had their pre-application meetings with DelDOT, just so they don’t change it because that would be, honestly, the one thing that would trigger me to bring it back,” Pierce said. “A significant shift in like the entrance location of a subdivision. Otherwise, they can’t come back with more units. They could come back with less units. A lot of times they lose units between preliminary and final because they had to move the pump station somewhere else, or they had to keep a certain feature on the property due to some unforeseen circumstance. So, there isn’t a lot that changes. It’s just they had to get all their agency approvals and get the city engineer to sign off on construction.”
Councilman Boyle asked if some examples could be added that would trigger bringing a final plan back to council. He pointed out that there are some issues with developments currently in existence because approvals were not reviewed thoroughly. Councilman James asked if there could be a line added regarding substantial changes to the final site plan. Pierce explained that he could review another section of the code that had language regarding the change of record plats. He felt some of that language could be added in that section of the code. Councilman Boyle again stated that he was not questioning Pierce or Whitfield’s honesty, but he was looking at down the road when a different council was seated or new staff had taken their positions.
“And the reason why I had the language that we have in here that says the planner, the manager and the engineer have to sign because I don’t want to be the only one signing the plan,” Pierce said. “So if there’s three of us signing, we really have to miss something. But you’ve been here long enough. So, I can make a revision to that and bring it back at a later date.”
Councilman Dan Marabello asked if applicants were having issues with the lag time in getting approvals. Pierce stated that site plans were fairly simple, but subdivisions take much more time to review. Staff had taken the position to review them closely since a subdivision would remain for a considerable amount of time.
“I do get complaints from some developers that our processes are sometimes tedious. I think most people think that bureaucracy is tedious. Right? So, it’s not just a general statement, but to Rob’s point that he has made, you have a preliminary approval that says now you need DNREC approval, XYZ approval, this department, that department, you can’t get your final until all those are done,” Councilman Culotta said. “And those are checks and balances that are in place to make sure things are right. So, again are we giving up control? You could argue yes, but I think we’re simplifying the process, adding speed and ease. And that has a lot to do with investment and an investor’s decision to make an investment and that’s something we need to consider because they because they can take their money elsewhere and invest it somewhere else that it is easier to invest.”
Councilman Andy Fulton stated that when he was on Planning and Zoning, they often talked about streamlining the process.
“Because from the preliminary to the final, if there’s changes, it’s going through a whole major review process a lot most of the times when we’re looking at the preliminary and we’re looking at the final. It’s much, much easier to make a minor change here and there. And we’ve already discussed all the other requirements all in there,” Councilman Fulton said. “And it is it’s just bureaucracy. It’s slowing a process that shouldn’t take all those steps. When you go through every minute detail on the preliminary and then you turn around and have to go through every minute detail again on the final. And you look back “Oh, that was already approved. Sorry. I missed that part that was already approved. Let’s go on to this part. Was this approved?” I mean, because it’s that detail. You can correct me if I’m wrong and getting it wrong on here, because I’m going off my memory on discussions on Planning and Zoning. And, and I hate to say this, but would crack us up on Planning and Zoning, which is why don’t vote this way is when the term “and Planning and Zoning voted that way so I’ll vote yes. So, I agree with this change the way it’s written. I understand your concerns. But there’s a lot of checks and balances.”
Council approved the changes to the subdivision of land code unanimously, although Councilman Boyle asked that there be language regarding what would trigger a final site plan to have to come back to council.
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