Annexation could bring retirement community to Ocean View

At their Tuesday-night meeting, Ocean View town council entertained a presentation by Peninsula United Methodist Homes (PUMH) to potentially bring a retirement community to the town.

Stephanie Hansen, an attorney for PUMH, pitched the idea of potentially annexing the as-yet-undeveloped 55-acre plot of land into town limits.

Although the council recognized the benefits of welcoming the community, several issues were raised regarding the best interests of the town and its citizens, including density, taxes and voter registration.

PUMH, founded in 1954, is a non-profit corporation that owns and operates three continuing-care retirement communities (CCRC’s) in Delaware and one community on the eastern shore of Maryland, including Country House in Greenville, Cokesbury Village in Hockessin, the Manor House in Seaford and Heron Point in Chestertown, Md.

PUMH was started by Rev. George H. Pigueron Jr., a Methodist minister who Hansen said recognized the need for secure residential retirement for the elder congregation. The idea behind a CCRC is that residential settings meet the changing health needs of older adults, which entail independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing centers and specially designed units to care for patients with memory impairment.

The 55-acre parcel of land, referred to as “the Lighthipe property,” is currently owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware, for the benefit of St. Martha’s Episcopal Church of Bethany Beach. The land is bordered by Velta Drive and Ocean Way Estates to the direct north, by the Assawoman Canal to the east, Canal Landing to the south and Ogre Drive to the west.

Of the 55 acres, PUMH is requesting annexation for 43 acres for their CCRC. The remaining12 acres, situated in the northwest corner of the property, will be kept by St. Martha’s for further development, although there are no specific plans for the 12 acres at this time.

Representatives with PUMH had approached council last year, when neighboring community Canal Landing was seeking annexation into the town. Lack of detailed plans had pushed the PUMH proposal back until Tuesday’s council meeting.

“PUMH has been in informal conversation with the Town of Ocean View for the past year and a half, regarding its potential annexation,” noted Hansen. “We want to make it a formal conversation with the town.”

“For several years, we have recognized the growing need in the coastal areas in Sussex County for a continuing care retirement community like those that we own and operate,” said Dave West, director of Planning and Business Development for PUMH.

A master plan depicts the community, specifying each type of service to be provided. In the plan, 10 three-story villa buildings surround a water feature at the entrance. Farther into the community, there are 15 carriage homes, and duplex structures provide 30 homes on the south and west boundaries.

The community’s main building houses independent living apartments and a common area. The healthcare sector accommodates three types of living situations: assisted living, with one- or two-bedroom apartments, skilled nursing, which is most comparable to a nursing home setting, and a memory enhancement setting, for residents dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related conditions.

“The CCRC concept is basically a self-contained environment,” West said, “where you have supportive elements, not only from a healthcare component, but the independent living residents have anything from dining venues, to a post office, a small bank and gift shop.” Fitness and wellness components are designed for the needs of older adults, as well as aquatic components — which includes a pool used for therapy applications and exercise. Physician facilities are also present within the community.

“We’re also a source of employment,” emphasized West. “When we are fully running, we will have over 200 individuals employed in the community. There are residents within the town of Seaford and Chestertown that work in our community. You have everything from jobs in housekeeping and dining up to more professional settings, such as physical therapists, fitness wellness, nurses, CAN’s, administrative staff. There’s a wide range.

“We’re also a source of economic activity,” he said. “The individuals that live there are generally year-round and generally spend their dollars locally. We make our facilities available to the general public.” Facilities within the community can be used for various public gatherings, such as seminars and cultural events, he said.

The project is in its preliminary stages of development, but there are a multitude of concerns about possible annexation into Ocean View that were addressed at Tuesday’s meeting, including:

• Developing new zoning code — “Currently, the Ocean View town code does not have a building classification that would allow PUMH to build the type of facility that we are proposing,” said Hansen. “The RPC for zoning won’t work, because of a requirement for 50 percent or more single-family homes, and as you can see, we have no single-family homes.”

A new zoning classification would need to be created, posing a major issue to the council. The town of Seaford, as well as other towns where these CCRC’s are located, has developed R4 zoning, which does three things, Hansen explained: (1) grants relief from single-family home requirement, (2) allows a mix of residential and commercial, and (3) increases the height restriction for buildings in Ocean View, which currently sits at 42 feet.

The fact that the CCRC would be owned and operated by a nonprofit organization varies from typical development proposals. “Nonprofits are different this way,” said Hansen. “They also don’t pay taxes, impact fees and transfer fees, so there’s a revenue here that you would not be getting that you would be used to getting if this was a standard residential subdivision.”

“We’re a living-breathing community,” West emphasized. “There are generations of people who have worked [at other PUMH locations] or have been affected by these communities.” On balance, he noted, the project being primarily self-contained will require very few services from the town and surrounding community.

• Registered voters — Councilman Richard Nippes voiced his concerns with the dramatic impending increase of registered voters within the town. “Potentially,” said Nippes, “they could have a tremendous impact on elections if they chose to register.” If all residents of the PUMH community indeed became registered voters, the number of voters within the town of Ocean View would increase significantly. Nippes was apprehensive about that impact, having come on board the town council in April after defeating candidate Gordon Wood by only three votes.

“You’re looking at adding potentially 384 holders, and we have to anticipate that they all may register,” added Councilman Roy Thomas. “They probably won’t, but it must be assumed that they would. We only have 525 registered voters in the town now. You can see what that could do to the votes.”

West suggested that it is unlikely that the completion of the project would adversely affect the registered voters within the town. “We spoke to several residents and the mayors of Seaford and Chestertown,” he said, “and, generally, what you see is very few living within the healthcare components vote.

“With the independent living population, yes, older individuals take the right to vote very seriously. But many of them are not concerned with local elections, and sometimes state elections, unless they came from the town of Ocean View,” he pointed out. “Can I prove to you or provide statistics that this is always the case? No. But, generally, while you’re adding that number of potential voters, many will not register, and those that will seek to be active on a local level will be small.”

West went on to remind council that the community is primarily self-contained, reducing concerns that might otherwise pose issues for the rest of the town.

• Tax increase — Thomas offered to share statistics that would put the tax situation in a clearer aspect. “There are approximately 2,200 properties in the town of Ocean View — lots that are developed or undeveloped,” he said. “There are 525 registered voters, which represents maybe only 350 properties, using the statistic of 1.5 votes per household. That means owners of approximately 1,850 properties within the town cannot vote.

Thomas emphasized, “Eighty-five percent of the property owners cannot vote, but yet 85 percent of the voters in the town contribute 90-plus percent of the taxes the town generates.”

He stated that the construction of the CCRC would require a minimum raise of taxes by 5 percent to cover additional costs attributed by financial deficit. “I think it’ll be a hard thing to sell to these residents,” he said.

• Density — Thomas then brought attention to density if the community of PUMH was granted annexation. Upon final completion, the total build-out number of units projected within the community is 346, with 256 coming from individual living homes, and 80 healthcare units (made up of 40 skilled nursing units, 35 assisted living residences and 15 units in the memory treatment center).

When calculating density, based on acreage of the property and size of the community, the entire CCRC would carry a density of eight units per acre — a number that doubles the largest currently-allowed density in the town of Ocean View. If healthcare units were removed, and individual living only was factored in, density would drop to 5.9 units per acre.

“The most this town has ever accepted is four units per acre,” said Thomas, “and that was with much debate. You’re asking for six in what we’re calling the ‘apples-to-apples’ category [of individual living residents], and that still disturbs me greatly. Bear Trap Dunes is 3.2 [units per acre], which, if you drive through it, it is very dense.”

Nippes inquired about multi-occupancy within the community, as well as automobile ownership, and how that may affect traffic congestion. West noted that he typically sees only half occupancy in the communities by couples in the individual living sectors. With this estimate, residence could climb near 380 in the CCRC.

“The impact in an active adult community or age-restrictive communities have a lower traffic impact that a typical residential community,” West said. “CCRC’s are even lower than that. Many residents may own a vehicle, but not even use it. We provide our own scheduled transportation to the grocery store, public outings and physicians.”

Density had not been negative factor in the functioning of PUMH’s other projects, West stated. The density proposal in the Ocean View project is almost identical to other PUMH communities.

“They have been operating successfully for a number of years,” said West. In hindsight on the issue of density, he noted that by increasing the number of year-round residents, the town will be eligible for more funding for street revenue and grants.

Thomas, however, said he was also concerned with setting a precedent with new allowances. “Somebody else will come in and say, ‘You let this community [increase height restriction]. Why can’t we do it?’”

Although in favor of what the community could bring to the town, Thomas said he was skeptical of whether the project had what it might take for eventual annexation into the town.

“I think it would be hard to pass this project on a referendum,” said Thomas. “I think there’s a need for this, but I’d be hard to support it under some of these circumstances. I don’t want to mislead [PUMH]. Years from now, we will not be the same council [they] work with. There will be new faces up here, and [they] run the risk of that. I’d also hate to see them work on approving a project like this for two years and have it fail.”

“I think this is an important project,” said Councilman Bill Wichmann. “The comments presented are appropriate, and this really deserves some thought.”

“It’s very risky,” added Mayor Gary Meredith. “Bear Trap was barely annexed, and I’m afraid this might not be accepted well by the citizens of the town.”

“I think it’s a nice idea,” said Nippes. “I’m looking down the road and saying that this looks like a nice place to live in. Maybe there’s a way we can make this work. It might not look the same if brought to county. The concept is outstanding.”

Even if rejected for annexation by the Ocean View council, PUMH can present the project to Sussex County for approval under county zoning. That is something the Ocean View Town Council members will have in mind as they consider the annexation proposal further.

“We believe that this project has merit,” said West, “and should we pursue it through the town, we will do it with eyes wide open toward some of the issues we talked about. Should we pursue it through the county, we will certainly make every effort to be a good neighbor and provide a community that we think will have lasting benefits to this region and long outlive all of us.”