Zoning request for Rookery property approved

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Rezoning of less than four acres of the former Rookery property was approved by City Council

Milford City Council voted seven to one to approve a request from Oak Forest Park LLC to change less than four acres of the Rookery parcel to C-1 from R-2. The zoning was required to bring Big Oyster Brewing to town. The company plans to create a brewpub and restaurant in the former clubhouse and pro shop located next to the golf course. The remaining acreage will continue to be an 18-hole golf course.

“Our plan is to reopen the golf course and country club after giving them both an extensive remodel,” Matt Johnson, who appeared before council with is father, Tim Johnson. “The golf course will remain a regulation 18-hole course with semi-private memberships that will be open to the public. The old country club will be receiving a much needed facelift both inside and out using the existing footprint. Our concept for the former country club is to open a restaurant and brewpub that will occupy the main building and former pro shop. The new restaurant is expected to employ 75 to 100 people, not including the 15 to 25 employees for the golf course.”

According to Johnson, the goal was to have the brewpub open by September 2023 and the first nine holes of the course also open by that time. The conditional use was necessary as the restaurant cannot remain open in R-2 zoning if the golf course does not. By rezoning the small portion of land, even if the golf course does not remain open, the brewpub can remain. Jeff Hamer, owner of Big Oyster Brewing, explained his plan for the location.

“I’ve been here since two years after I graduated from college and this is my 32nd year in the restaurant industry,” Hamer said. “I started with Arena’s Deli, you guys are familiar with that and sold it in 2005 to my employees. I’ve owned numerous coffee shops and currently own Fin’s Hospitality Group. As of today, we have seven restaurants in Sussex County. We just purchased Just Hooked in Fenwick today.”

Hamer explained that his company planned to open a 200-seat restaurant in the clubhouse while the pro shop will be the brewery building. He stated that there needed to be extensive renovations to the building as it had been left vacant for several years, which meant some mold and mildew remediation as well as upgrades to electrical systems, fire suppression and the kitchen.

“I see this as part of the redevelopment of that entire area,” Hamer said. “I think the golf course is a great asset to have in Milford. I was talking to some people from the community about having nice walking paths that will go down the road. They’re around the hospital similar to what they have on the Breakwater Trail. I’ll have 100 bicycles at my Lewes location on a Saturday because people bicycle around the community. It’s become a place for families with their little kids behind them in the little bicycle carry things. So it’s a very family atmosphere. If anyone is worried about Big Oyster, just go to our Instagram and see we have playgrounds out back with bocce ball, chalkboards for the kids to draw on, cornhole and more. So, people bring their families, they hang out and play with their kids. They hang out to eat. We are a restaurant, we are 25 percent alcohol and 75 percent food. We’re not a night club, we close early.”

Tim Johnson explained that he had heard there were concerns that if the zoning was changed, he could put in a convenience store or a gas station. He explained that this location was not suited for that type of business nor does a shopping center work on a smaller road. Jerry Esposito spoke out in support of the project, both for himself and for Sussex County Economic Development Action Committee.

“What the city needs is open space for recreation and compatible hospitality,” Esposito said. “The local community and our neighbors are craving a resource like the one proposed. I plan to join the renewed golf club and patronize the new restaurant. I’ve been assured by many former Shawnee members that they are anxious to do the same.”

Hunter Emory also spoke in support of the rezoning, stating that his children loved going to Big Oyster in Lewes to play on the playground while he and his wife enjoyed a beer and some excellent food. Butch Elzey also spoke in favor of the rezoning, commenting that he first went to the Shawnee Country Club when he was five or six years old with his parents who were members. He also pointed out that Tim Johnson had opened many successful businesses in Milford, indicating that he felt that if anyone could make a success of the golf course, it was Johnson. Jason Weisberg, who is both a golfer and who works in the brewing industry, spoke about the benefits Big Oyster would bring to Milford.

“Nationally, the 9,000 breweries in operation have an economic impact of $76.3 billion based on 2021 data,” Weisberg said. “They are also responsible for over 490,000 jobs at the national level. I was recruited by many towns to bring brewpubs to them when I was brewing. On a local level, talking about why these people come here, there is a segment of tourism called beer tourism that is specifically the travel motivated by visiting breweries, brewpubs, going to beer festivals, going to visit places where they had beer events. In Delaware alone, that impact was $405 million. While we were 41st in the nation of our per capita impact, we were ninth overall nationally. So, craft beer in Delaware, that $405 million was done by 2,200 people working in the craft industry with an average wage of $62,000. So, these are real jobs.”

Not everyone who spoke at the meeting was in favor of the rezoning request. Joe Palermo remarked that the concern was not the brewpub itself nor was it about the golf course.

“They employ about 800 people, and I commend them for that,” Palermo said. “I think the concern here is not that we don’t want the Rookery or whatever it may be to flourish. The fact is that if it fails, then there are other options they can do with the property and that is the concern of the residents. They can flip it and have a strip mall, a laundromat or whatever else in there.”

Gloria Marokowitz, who like Palermo lives near the proposed brewpub, also stated that she thought the restaurant sounded wonderful but that rezoning the 3.93 acres could open up the land for too many undesirable businesses.

“If the proposed plan doesn’t last, as has happened in the past, you can subdivide the property, take that 3.93 acres and subdivide it out without changing the zone,” Markowitz said. “Also, the parties could change their mind as soon as it’s sold as commercial property. Has a traffic study been done? Don’t you think a traffic study is prudent?”

Hamer explained that he had a 100 percent success rate with his businesses and that he had often been told he would not succeed based on location or for other reasons. Yet, he had been successful in his ventures.

“This is a big deal, a big decision for Milford overall,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “It would open green space for a golf course, and it is a vital activity in Milford. Jeff Hamer has been successful everywhere he has gone. Whether he gets his funding from a bank or private investors, that is none of my business. I really don’t care, but as council, we function to create economic development opportunities.”

Councilman Mike Boyle stated that, coming into the meeting, he had reservations about the project. He felt there was a lot of confusion that had been cleared up by the applicants. He reminded council that they needed to show the public they were serious and not just agreeing to something because it was a fun thing to have in town.

“I can respect what Mr. Boyle has referenced to us being serious,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “I think just by sitting here, we’re serious. We’ve watched this town slowly, slowly grow and with many considerations. I can remember when Mr. Johnson and Mr. Carmean were meeting about the industrial park. I was here so I appreciate all you do for the city of Milford. I am very happy for you wanting to develop this property and Mr. Hamer wanting to put in the brewpub. I was the first black person at the country club where the only time you saw a black person in the clubhouse was when they worked in the kitchen. So, I’m excited to know that you’re going to have equal opportunity for all of our families and our citizens.”

Councilwoman Wilson also pointed out that young people were returning and looking for things to do while others were looking to learn a trade which the brewery industry could provide.

“The economics in our town, I am very passionate about that,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “We need the growth. Someone made a comment of New Milford. There is no New Milford. It’s Milford. We’re one town so whatever goes on that side of town affects all of us. I’m just excited about it. I’m thankful you are saving the golf course. My husband and I will feel comfortable and be able to go play golf. That stigma is gone at the Shawnee Country Club. I am just looking forward to what it is going to bring to Milford, the flavor, the changing of culture.”

Council approved the measure with just one dissenting vote. Councilman Dan Marabello voted no, stating that he felt the synergy between a brewpub and golf course would be great, but he was not comfortable with the rezoning request.

“What worries me is the unknown that if it fails, a strip center could go there,” Councilman Marabello said. “I don’t think we need one because we have one right up the road. A strip center would detract from the residential character of the single family home and if it is approved, we have an unknown. What bothers me the most is changing this from R-2 to C-1 would set an unnecessary precedent for this. I believe the two parties could build the property and they seem to be very confident that it will be successful, and they will have no debt.”

Councilman Boyle admitted that he was initially planning not to approve the request, but after hearing from the applicants, he felt that they had good track records and would do what they said they planned to do.



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