Officials from Ocean View and Millville this week discussed the fate of a group of lots located in a “no-man’s land” between the towns, in which some of the lots – all located within the Country Estates community – are only partially in Ocean View and others exist in unincorporated Sussex County, being neither in Ocean View nor in Millville.
A public hearing and informational session held June 15, in which the issue was discussed with residents and property owners, was part of an attempt to clarify the annexation status of the nine lots that are partially in the town of Ocean View and nine are in Sussex County jurisdiction.
Ocean View Administrative Official Charlie McMullen explained at the meeting that, back in the 1970s, Country Estates had been annexed into Ocean View in two sections. He said a boundary line for the annexations was “not necessarily placed where it should have been.”
McMullen said both he and Millville officials have had “nothing but problems” over which jurisdiction the lots are actually located in. He said they cannot find any legal documentation confirming that the lots in question were ever successfully annexed into Ocean View – even though he and Town Manager Conway Gregory believe it was the intent of the developer to have one contiguous development, and not have some lots separated out.
Gregory said conversations occurred between the two towns in 1989, in an attempt to resolve the issue, but for whatever reason, it seemed to get dropped and was not resolved.
He explained that one lot owner could not get bank financing recently because of the confusion of where his lot was. That property owner has since petitioned to have the lot formally annexed into Ocean View, but town officials would like to resolve the issue for the rest of the property owners in question, as well.
“I came on four years ago,” explained Millville Town Manager Debbie Botchie of her involvement with the issue as a town official, “and noticed this line going through them. And some – half were in Ocean View and half were in Millville. I started researching and found maps with three different lines on them, and 12 of the properties were stated as being in Millville, as recorded by the county.”
Botchie said Millville had inactivated the properties in terms of Millville regulations and services, because they felt they were part of Country Estates and should be in Ocean View, as one development. After more research, she said, she found out that those lots were never in Millville or in Ocean View and are technically in Sussex County.
“We just don’t know. None of us were here,” said Gregory of the muddled history. “We can only base it on what we can find in the written record.”
Ocean View Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader noted that he had been in Ocean View in 1989, but he said that after he was asked about the properties back then, the issue did seem to just dissipate. He said Millville Town Solicitor Seth Thompson had conducted a title search on the properties, but that it only raised more questions and did not resolve the issue.
Arthur Fleischmann and his wife own three lots in Country Estates – one with a house on it and two that are unimproved. One of his lots sits in the “no-man’s land” the towns were discussing on June 15.
Fleischmann said he recalled that there had been some trouble with the one lot because a farmer was farming it at the time the community was being developed, and it wasn’t fully clear who held the title. He said the seller had even offered to buy the lot back from him and his wife, but they eventually did get a clear title.
“The developer had to pay the farmer to get the clear title,” he noted.
Fleischmann pointed out that he pays about $114 per year in taxes for his lot in Ocean View and about $20 for the lot that he had thought was in Millville.
“Will my taxes go up if I’m in Ocean View?” he asked.
Fleischmann said he did not receive a tax bill this year, that Millville officials had explained to him that his property is technically not in Millville. He jokingly asked if he was going to get his money back. (They said no).
Fleischmann also asked about the possibility of getting streetlights – something he had asked officials about before. Gregory said they couldn’t answer that, but McMullen – clearly aiming to encourage annexation into Ocean View to clarify the boundaries – offered that, if that would entice the Fleischmanns, “We can certainly discuss that.”
Fleischmann also asked if it was legal that he was being required to pay Ocean View $400 per year for water access for a lot that doesn’t have an improvement on it and isn’t technically in town limits.
“Is it legal to pay Ocean View $400 a year for water that I don’t use?” he asked.
McMullen asked that Fleischmann call his office so they could discuss the Fleischmanns’ individual circumstances.
Botchie and Gregory also emphasized on Tuesday that the Fleischmanns’ property would get police protection if it was annexed into Ocean View, since Millville currently only has part-time police coverage by state troopers and the county is serviced by state troopers as well, while Ocean View has its own police department.
Only one other owner of any of the properties in question attended Tuesday’s meeting, and she too asked about taxes. Janet Bush also said that she enjoys being able to use her well water (still permitted in Millville, but not in Ocean View) and take her trash to the Town of Millville, which once a year offers residents bulk trash collection as a town service.
McMullen reminded Bush that if her property is not in an officially designated growth area for Millville, as per the town’s comprehensive plan, making the property part of Millville would not be as simple as trying to annex in, if that was her preference, as the property is now technically in Sussex County.
Bryan Hall – who is the Sussex County circuit-rider for the Delaware Office of State Planning and Coordination – explained that, under Delaware code, a property has to be identified as being in a town’s designated growth area and contiguous to existing town boundaries to be considered for annexation into that town.
Hall also noted that annexation is a give-and-take process and that towns sometimes can work with individuals to make the process beneficial to everyone involved.
Schrader pointed out that Ocean View is in the process of adopting updates to its comprehensive plan and land-use code and has an annexation moratorium until those are adopted. He also noted that the town is awaiting a legislative approval of a charter change regarding its annexation rules, so the earliest any petitions for annexation could happen would be in the fall.
Gregory commented on Tuesday that he was disappointed with the turnout for the hearing and hoped there would be more interest from affected property owners come September or October.
“We hope to have greater participation, and we can decide at that time where we are going,” he said.