Millville Vice-Mayor Gerry Hocker sat in the audience for much of July 10’s town council meeting, making a clear statement that he was participating in public hearings on the proposed H & D subdivision as a co-owner of the property and not as a council member.
Hocker cast no vote and said little during the process of considering first the annexation of the nearly 11 acres of land adjacent to the intersection of Substation and Beaver Dam roads, then its rezoning from AR-Agricultural/Residential to R-Residential with a conditional use as a residential planned community (RPC) and, finally, approval of a preliminary site plan calling for 57 townhomes on the property.
Contrasting the previous Annexation Committee meeting on the project, co-owner and local developer Peter DeMarie also remained largely silent, allowing the official record, the project’s engineer and his attorney to speak for him.
Neighboring property owner Gerald T. Smith, however — despite only a few hours of preparation after belatedly finding out about the public hearings — had plenty to say, and little of it was good.
“This is bad for the people and the town of Millville,” Smith said, primarily objecting to the density of the project and its nature as including only townhomes.
“Do we want to build condos? Does the town feel this is necessary? How many units are needed? Where do we draw the line?” he asked the council.
Smith also noted the same concerns about the development being out of character with the neighborhood that other adjacent property owners had raised before the Annexation Committee.
The land, also owned by Carey M. Hocker, Felix Medina and Carlos Velasquez, is located adjacent to the planned Millville By the Sea community. But Smith noted that he — and other neighbors — had purchased their properties in rural surroundings with expectations to build single-family homes there, never envisioning that nearly 60 townhomes would end up across the street or next door.
Also continuing as a source of objection for Smith and the other neighbors has been the planned price point for the townhomes — $250,000 — which the neighbors say will negatively affect their own property values, where recent appraisals for some have been in the neighborhood of $300,000.
He also pointed to contrasting development strategies in the neighboring Millville By the Sea project — with an aesthetic the council has championed. “Millville By the Sea is supposed to be beautiful, with swimming pools and walkways,” Smith said of the mixed single-family and multi-family unit community.
“I was expecting a mix of single-family home and townhouses, not 57 townhouses on a little more than 10 acres,” he noted of the H & D subdivisio. “This is a country setting. It’s zoned agricultural/residential,” he emphasized, pointing to density limits under Sussex County that cap projects (at least on paper) at just 4.2 units per acre in the AR-1 district.
With 57 units, as proposed, the H & D subdivision comes in around 6.2 units per acre.
New ordinances a little too late to impact subdivision
Smith questioned whether the project should be considered under the town’s existing subdivision and zoning ordinances, which hold fewer restrictions and higher caps on density, or under retooled ordinances that were to be considered — and were eventually adopted — later in that same meeting. He said he personally felt like 36 units was the maximum that should be built on the property.
“I can’t penalize Mr. DeMarie for the town’s inability to hold a hearing in May,” Mayor Donald Minyon replied, referencing delays related to council members’ absences that had tied up the approval of the new ordinances, which he agreed included “stricter controls.”
“Mr. DeMarie has acted in good faith with the town under the existing zoning,” Minyon said. “I don’t like 57 units on that property,” he noted, “but we have to look at this thing legally, too.”
Minyon again noted his personal preference for a mix of single-family homes and townhomes, which is required under the new ordinances, at a minimum of 40 percent single-family homes in a RPC. And Smith encouraged the council to consider its decision in that light, with perhaps some notion of negotiating with DeMarie for something the council and neighbors would find more palatable.
“The council has to decide if it fits with this zoning,” he said. “The town council has the absolute right to decide whether they want this or not.”
That point acknowledged, the council soon provided their answer, voting successively, 3-0, to first annex the property and then to rezone it with the RPC conditional use.
In both cases, Councilwoman Joan Bennett abstained from a vote, noting that she had only received the minutes of the Annexation Committee meeting and a number of other documents on July 9, the day before the vote. But, moreover, she said, “I personally am not compelled to vote in favor or against it.”
Bennett said the applicants’ reasons for wanting to come into town limits were less than persuasive for her.
Fire protection is already provided by the Millville Volunteer Fire Company, she noted. Sewer is all but set to be provided by the recently completed Millville By the Sea extension of the county-run central sewer system. And police protection is something the town has not yet moved to officially establish, she pointed out.
“I have no compelling reason to vote against it, though,” she added, declaring the project “technically OK, legally OK,” but not enough to compel her to vote for its annexation or rezoning.
Minyon and Council Members Kami Banks and Richard Thomas all voted in favor of the new subdivision, cementing its approval.
Additional density request nets objections
However, Minyon did take issue with one aspect of the preliminary site plan on Tuesday night, raising concerns about a letter sent by the project’s engineer, Bailey Myers of GMB, to the town on July 2, in reference to a second site plan that Myers later described as an “option” the engineers wanted to provide to the council.
Plan A, with 57 townhomes, was the initial plan presented to the Annexation Committee and was described as “generic” in the July 2 letter from Myers.
The new Plan B, also with 57 townhomes, makes use of a wider, less ruler-straight, street approach but also would require the council to waive a density cap that involves developable land area — the net area available to development, less planned roadway area — which would limit Plan B to just 53 units instead of the desired 57.
“You say Plan B is ‘beautiful,’ but that it requires the density to be increased,” Minyon said to Myers. “Somehow, when I read that, it just didn’t go down right,” he said with clear skepticism of beauty equating with increased density.
“‘While Plan A is not the most aesthetically pleasing site plan…’” Minyon read from the letter. “Are you going for increased density or aesthetics?” he questioned Myers.
“I’m insulted that you would write a letter like that,” he chided the engineer.
The letter also didn’t sit well with Bennett, who asked as part of her vote on approving the preliminary site plan that Myers submit another letter for the public record on the project that would “more concisely and clearly” define what the plan was aiming for.
“It did not make sense as to increased density being more aesthetically pleasing,” she said, noting also an objection to the use of the word “backwards” as related to Plan A.
“I can’t imagine that there would not be considerable head-scratching,” she said of future readers of the letter. “And there would be questions as to what we were considering.”
Myers, though, said he had not planned to actually present Plan B to the council on Tuesday, explaining that he had given the council members the drawing for Plan B at the request of Banks, who said she had made the request because she had preferred Plan B aesthetically and wanted the plan available to discuss as the RPC vote was held and the council decided where it wanted to go with the project.
And DeMarie said he was also not going to ask the council to make the exception required for Plan B with 57 units. “Plan A is what we’re requesting. Plan B was just an option for the council,” he emphasized. “We will gingerbread it up as we go through the stages,” he said of the “generic” Plan A. “Plan B isn’t going over well, so we’ll pull it.”
DeMarie’s attorney said he would draft an official letter from the developer to that effect, in deference to Bennett’s objections to the July 2 letter from GMB.
While Bennett had abstained on the annexation and rezoning votes, she said she had no reason to vote against the preliminary site plan, as presented in Plan A.
“Fifty-seven units is within the current RPC regulations. I’m not thrilled with this kind of density,” she noted, “but, legally, it’s good to go.”
Minyon draws line for future development
While in agreement on both counts and ready to cast his own vote to approve the preliminary site plan — taking the tally on that issue to 4-0 in favor — Minyon still had some strong words or warning for those developing in the area in the future.
“I would hope that when developers come to the town and ask for these kinds of things from the town they would look not just at how much they can make but at how these developments will look and what is best for the town,” he said.
“It’s about time they had some consciousness and thought about what looks good in this town and not just take the money and run,” Minyon added.
Windhurst Manor gets final plan approval
There was a warmer reception on July 10 for a final site plan at Windhurst Manor, where 114 townhomes with a pool and clubhouse are planned for about 24.5 acres off Windmill Road, adjacent to the Barrington Park community.
No changes had been made to the previously approved preliminary plan, and with all needed agency approvals granted as of July 10, there was little to discuss before the council’s unanimous, 5-0 vote (Hocker’s first of the evening).
Thomas did ask about the previously raised notion of a pedestrian bridge and connecting walkways to neighboring Barrington Park, which might serve as an emergency egress. Engineer Zack Crouch of Davis, Bowen and Friedel said that idea was in the hands of state officials, who would have to approve an encroachment on the existing tax ditch between the two properties.
Crouch had previously noted that the property is “all wooded now” and said the design for the community had been intended to preserve as many trees as possible, with buffers on the edges to protect adjacent property owners. He said the choice to develop townhomes had also been a move to preserve as much open space as possible.
Plans also call for two stormwater retention ponds.