Final MBS annexation moves ahead

After an extra effort made to notify surrounding property owners of the request for the Town of Millville to annex a 168-acre parcel as a final phase of Millville by the Sea, town officials were rewarded on Feb. 15 with a comparative wealth of interested parties.

In receipt of certified letters from the town, some half-dozen neighbors of the parcel, which lies southwest of the intersection of Powell Farm Road and Route 17, turned out last Thursday to an Annexation Committee meeting to ask some questions about plans for the phase and its potential impact on their properties.

Neighbors were chiefly concerned with what has been one of the major worries about development throughout the area: its affect on transportation. Millville Group’s Bob Harris said improvements were already planned to surrounding roads — Powell Farm, Burbage, Substation and Peppers Corner, among others — at the company’s expense. That work, he said, was to be done during construction of the project.

He further noted that the developers had been requested to pitch in with improvements as far away as Route 113 and on the traffic-laden Route 26.

Frank Bennett, who owns land off Burton Farm Road, asked whether the plan called for any alteration to existing tax ditches on the property. Harris said that all the ditches on the parcel were either to remain in place or be moved after court approval.

“We cannot affect off-site ditches,” he assured Bennett, saying that the residential community was permitted to create no more water runoff than currently exists on the property, with plans to formally study changes to existing drainage before any changes are made.

Farmers’ concerns assuaged

Wayne Cooper, a farmer whose land is also off Burton Farm Road, asked about a subject of keen interest to many of those farming these days in the development-heavy eastern side of Sussex County: “How is this going to affect us if we put in a hog farm or spread chicken manure on our fields? Is this going to be a problem?”

While Councilman and Annexation Committee Chairman Don Minyon reminded Cooper that his property was still outside the town limits and therefore subject only to county control, Harris acknowledged the concerns with a historical perspective.

“Farming is probably the second oldest profession in the county. You have a right to farm and to make a living as a farmer. It doesn’t matter how I feel about it,” he said. “We make it clear to our customers that if they move into the community, next to a farm, they can expect normal farming activity next door.”

Harris noted that farming practices do come under existing rules, but, “As long as you follow those rules, they should have no reason to complain.”

With the significant parcel potentially to be annexed into the town and others in the immediate area already planning, according to Town Manager Linda Collins, to follow with requests of their own, Minyon was still willing to rule out one step — at least for the meantime. Responding to Bennett’s question, he said the town currently has no plans to annex unincorporated Clarksville.

Jean Cooper, also of Burton Farm Road, said she was concerned about how the annexations would affect taxes in the area. Minyon said he couldn’t say whether they would or won’t, but that the project would add to Millville’s tax base in a way that shouldn’t affect “old town” Millville property owners, with some 6,000 units annexed in the last few years.

Sewer expansion could benefit neighbors

On the strongly positive side, while Jean Cooper expressed reservations that the county-run sewer system could provide enough capacity for all those new residents, Harris assured her that the Millville Group was already working to add sewer capacity. That portion of the project is already under construction, in fact, as demonstrated by a progress map posted at town hall.

Harris said he couldn’t testify as to the potential impact on sewer fees or whether individual property owners outside of Millville By the Sea would be able to connect to the newly expanded sewer district. That has long been the expectation, but Harris said the final decision on who can connect and when would be with the county.

Councilman Richard Thomas seconded that notion, with the experience of problems hooking up residents of Reba Road to the recent sewer expansion west of that neighborhood. Nonetheless, the expectation remains that most near these new communities with sewer will be able to hook up as well.

Minyon also confirmed that power supply was expected to be sufficient to serve the new residents — an element of the Preliminary Land-Use Service (PLUS) review at the state level.

Also from PLUS review, Minyon asked Harris to confirm whether the homes in the community were to meet a new energy-efficiency standard. Harris said that those kinds of construction details were up to the individual construction companies involved in building each home. But he said that those constructed by the Millville Group were to be constructed to the standard, while he would encourage NBR — the only other construction company involved — to do likewise.

Committee readies recommendation

Minyon also noted that the company has provided all necessary paperwork to the town as part of its newly structured administrative process for annexation.

The Annexation Committee, with the input from the Feb. 15 meeting, was ready to deliberate and make its recommendation to the town council on the issue of annexation.

At the council level, the town will first hold a public hearing, inviting more public input, before the council has its final say on whether the parcel will join the rest of Millville By the Sea as part of the town of Millville.

As part of its deliberations, Annexation Committee members on Feb. 15 were asked by Minyon to list whatever advantages or disadvantages they could see in the annexation. The disadvantages were few and far between, while the advantages to the town and the community were many.

Councilman and committee member Gerry Hocker said he felt the annexation would be advantageous to the town. “Millville has been fortunate enough to have a voice in this development from Day 1,” he said. “We had the final say. And the developer worked with the town from Day 1, three years ago. They’ve been very accommodating to the town.”

With some 700 acres already annexed, Hocker said he felt the final leg of the project should also come into the town, placing the whole of the development within town limits. Otherwise, he said, residents of the phase would likely end up in the same situation as many of its nearby neighbors — convinced they were in town limits and expecting things from the town that they weren’t going to be provided, since they weren’t residents. It had proven confusing for both the town and its neighbors, he said.

Hocker also pointed to that expanding tax base, noting limitations on the use of transfer taxes that have been of high interest as the town begins its new budget cycle and looks to its long-term financial plan. “It’s difficult,” he said. “We don’t have the taxes to do what we want to do now.” He could cite no disadvantages to annexation.

Likewise, Thomas said he felt the financial advantages to the town were significant, with a small tax base of just $20 million in “old town” properties and public safety needs expanding rapidly. “That’s not much to improve public safety,” he said, adding that he hoped the town would soon be able to afford to establish its own police department, instead of looking to state police and neighboring Ocean View.

Thomas did find a disadvantage – but it’s likely one akin to the horse already being out of the barn. He said that when he’d moved to Millville in the early 1980s, it had been the “perfect town.” He said everyone knew everyone, everyone went to church, and all were interested in helping their neighbors in times of need.

“When we get this, we will probably have lost that knowledge,” he said, but he added that, still, the townsfolk had to look to their future.

Minyon said he felt the same as Hocker, believing that the remaining 168-acre parcel should join its fellows inside the Town of Millville and could provide the town needed revenue down the road. “It will take a while,” he cautioned. But he said the ability of the town to have some control over the new community through its codes would be of benefit as well and praised the Millville Group’s efforts to provide the town information and work with officials.

“The biggest problem is down the road,” he said, meaning it literally. He said traffic on Route 17 and its side roads was outside the town’s control, being the responsibility of the Delaware Department of Transportation to ensure that traffic moved appropriately. Like Thomas, he looked to his arrival in the town, in 1985, and noted that traffic problems being rare was now a thing of the past.

With those sentiments on the record, the annexation process moves onto the Office of State Planning Control, for its approval, followed by a likely public hearing and council vote. The committee will share its recommendation — apparently a thumbs-up — with the council before that vote.