Millville Group provides MBS progress update

Early progress on the 3,000-home Millville By the Sea master-planned community (MPC) in Millville is “moving along very well,” according to Bob Harris of the Millville Group, one of several developers on the project and the managing entity of the construction. Harris made the report to Millville Town Council members at a workshop on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

According to Project Manager Al Ruble, permitting hurdles that have held the project up somewhat since the construction phase began in recent months have been getting cleared in the last few weeks. He said all permits currently required had been obtained, including a Delaware Department of Transportation entrance permit and a state fire marshal’s check of the project’s roadway plans.

Those clearances should keep the project on track for its next phase, with a groundbreaking set for Monday on a sewer pump station, the station to be operational by May, and six model homes and a “mock-up village” with the stereotypical Millville By the Sea “streetscape” to be erected soon thereafter.

Ruble said the fire marshal had thrown the Millville Group a curveball by making additional radius requirements of the alleyways that are planned to provide residents access to the rear of their properties and the backyard garages.

Though the alleyways are considered an additional access for emergency vehicles, above and beyond the main access roads that front the homes and are suitable for any fire-fighting, Ruble said the state fire marshal’s office had decided to require that the alleys also be held to the same state standard of accessibility — the ability to handle “Big Bertha,” the state’s largest fire apparatus, despite the fact that the vehicle is kept upstate.

That meant plans for the smaller roadways had to be altered slightly to provide more room — and more solid surface — on their aprons for “Big Bertha” to turn around safely and be braced while fighting any future fires. Ruble said it was unlikely the massive vehicle would be in the area anytime soon, but he thought perhaps the fire marshal was thinking in terms of a distant future when more such vehicles might be used downstate.

Ruble said they’d solved the problem by creating a flatter, drivable, alleyway apron of pavers that provides both a solid turning radius and a way to brace such an apparatus when it is in use. The result, he said, highlighted the edges of the alleys “without being gaudy.”

Councilman Richard Thomas noted that the alleyway access for residents was a desired feature in the town’s draft zoning regulations, which the council has been updating in recent months. Harris said the design type was considerably more expensive to build than a typical front-access driveway and garage but that the result was far more aesthetically pleasing.

Updating general progress on the project, Ruble said some 90 percent of the permitting on Phase 1 was already complete. He said the DelDOT entrance permitting for Substation Road was, as usual, taking some time, with additional turning ratio on its aprons requested by the state fire marshal’s office.

Ruble said Phases 2A and 2C were currently in the design stage. “In the latter part of the year, we hope we can come back and share those with you,” he told the council.

Sewer project digs deep, moves ahead

Other major progress at Millville By the Sea falls under the category of sewer, which the Millville Group is constructing itself under an agreement with Sussex County, rather than the county using tax dollars to fund the expansion of sewer service in the area.

Ruble said the sewer project was expected to be a “slow, dangerous” process, since much of the sewer pipe is being laid 20 feet or deeper into the ground. “It’s a very deep sewer. It will take a lot of time,” he warned.

That work is ongoing now on several sections of road that will be part of the community — Substation Road, Beaver Dam Road and Burbage Road. From Burbage Road to Substation Road, a 30-inch gravity-fed system is being installed 20 feet underground, with five manholes already installed on that slow-moving project.

On Beaver Dam, a 14-inch and 24-inch dual force main system is being planted at similar depths, leading to the South Coastal treatment plant. Some 5,700 liner feet of the sewer have already been completed there, Ruble said, with 23,000 feet of force-main pipe alone to go into the finished $13 million project. A three-pump pump station will feed into the force-main system.

“Many of the houses around us, along with future homes, will be able to tap into the system with no cost to the taxpayer. And they will have a state-of-the-art pump station,” Ruble said with pride, promising to leave a progress map of the sewer work at Millville Town Hall that he said would be updated regularly to keep the town and its council informed.

Ruble said the 14-inch main was expected to be able to handle up to three-quarters of the anticipated full sewer load of the area after the community is completed. He said the accompanying 24-inch main wouldn’t be needed for at least 25 to 30 years into the project, at which time the system operators would have the option to go to the 24-inch main — giving the system tremendous longevity and redundancy as the area continues to grow, and, again, at no cost to the county or its taxpayers.

Thomas asked if the water system was going to be able to be installed as the deep work on putting the sewer system in was also being done, but Ruble said Tidewater Utilities was in the permitting phases for its project and the sewer work was simply happing too deep in the earth for the water to be done at the same time. He said he hoped they would be ready to put the water system in before the affected roads were ready to be finished off from the sewer work, however.

Millville By the Sea will also be serviced by a propane farm on property inside the community. That project is being handled by supplier PepUp, Ruble said.

Harris had praise for the work Ruble has done managing the construction so far. “We should be done well ahead of schedule,” he predicted.

Special tax district suggested by Harris

Harris also provided the council with a large packet of information he said should be useful to the town as discussions about annexing an as-yet-unnamed phase of MBS progress. The phase was part of the community’s original plan but was held up from the initial annexation requests by other issues. The Millville Group is now asking that it be annexed to join the other MBS phases inside the town.

Inside the packet, Harris said, was more information on the Millville Group’s response to concerns under the state’s Preliminary Land Use Service review of the phase, which Councilman Don Minyon had raised as an issue of his own concern during January’s Annexation Committee meeting.

Among the other issues raised at that meeting was the potential impact of MBS on the existing town — including how the town might need to fund future services to MBS and the growing municipality.

Harris was more than ready to start a dialogue on that issue Tuesday night, saying that the Millville Group had included some projected numbers for the town’s consideration as part of the annexation packet. Beyond that, Harris said he wanted to encourage the council to consider creating a special tax district for Millville By the Sea.

Bridgeville and Millsboro have both recently changed their town charters to allow for the creation of such a district, which permits a municipality to charge a separate, additional tax to property owners inside the district — often in exchange for the town picking up the costs of infrastructure. Those costs are in turn paid for by the additional tax on properties in the district, as well as potential special projects — such as municipal buildings or expansions — that are done by the developer.

Harris said he recommended the council establish a special committee to consider such a district, and that they ask Bridgeville Mayor Joe Conaway — who is a proponent of such districts — to confer with them as to how the process has gone there. Harris said state Sen. George Howard Bunting and Rep. Gerald Hocker were also supporters of the districts, and had told him they were willing to sponsor legislation that would allow Millville a charter change if the town wanted to pursue a special tax district.

The timeframe for doing that this year is narrow, essentially limited to this spring, before the legislative session nears a close. So, Harris encouraged the council to establish a committee soon and consider the idea.

Deputy Mayor Joan Bennett — who has been acting as the town’s executive with Interim Mayor Tim Droney out of town and not seeking re-election — said she’d discussed that notion with Town Solicitor Mary Robin Schrider-Fox in recent days and wanted to proceed with some caution. She said there were many issues for the town to consider in making such a decision, including some possible negatives of creating a special tax district.

Bennett said she preferred that, rather than creating a special committee with some members of the council, that the issue would be discussed by the council as a whole. The other four council members present Feb. 6 agreed, and Bennett said she planned to pursue a special meeting on the topic “sooner than later.” Minyon said he also wanted to have the input of Schrider-Fox before such deliberations, so the council may schedule a meeting with her before undertaking any action.

Long-term planning for use of revenues encouraged

Harris also told council members on Tuesday that he was concerned with how the town planned to deal with the issue of anticipated revenues and municipal services in the future, with some $11.5 million in transfer taxes, real estate taxes and related fees expected to come into its coffers from Millville By the Sea over the next 10 years.

“I don’t know how the town projects its services over the next decade,” he ventured, acknowledging the council’s position that it doesn’t want to take over any road maintenance. He said MBS planned to handle its own road maintenance, trash and utility costs and services. “There will be a lot of money available,” he reminded them.

Harris said he expected the town would need its own police department eventually, and might even one day need its own municipal fire department — “a step beyond” the mostly volunteer Millville Volunteer Fire Company, he said, with its staff of professional emergency medical technicians and firefighters expanded. “This is something we’re thinking about,” he said of the Millville Group.

The issue is also a key one for Thomas, who is a member of the MVFC and of his hometown Columbia, Md., company, which has undergone a large expansion in recent decades. Thomas said the issue of fire company jurisdictions would need to be addressed in the future, as the newly proposed MBS phase is inside the Roxana company’s service area, while the rest of MBS is inside that of the MVFC.

Thomas noted that expansion of the MVFC was already being partially funded through the permit and other real estate fees and taxes coming into the town from MBS. “We will work with you on that,” he told Harris.

Harris said he was also concerned that under that agreement with the MVFC for Millville donations that the town not one day end up paying a share larger than was fair for the service it was receiving, since the MVFC also services Ocean View and other surrounding areas.

“How is that money to be allocated?” he asked, saying the decision on how to spend the anticipated millions in revenue would “depend on how the Town of Millville sees itself in the future.” Again, he referenced the desire not to take over road maintenance. “At some point, we’d like to know what these ideas are.”

Bennett again showed an inclination to move forward cautiously but stalwartly. “In the next five to seven years, if the town feels it needs to offer fire or public safety, by all means we’ll provide it,” she said. “The police are on our minds all the time. We need to start talking about this in pretty short order.”

The deputy mayor said she believed the council needed to start now, as its annual budgeting cycle begins, in considering long-term fiscal planning for such items. She said she favored creating a five-year plan for capital spending that could include police, fire and other infrastructure improvements, again, “sooner rather than later.”

“We need to be proactive, rather than reacting down the road,” she said. “It’s time,” she added, that the town begin talking about what it would do with its revenue stream over the long-term.

Harris offered the assistance of Millville Group’s own financial minds in beginning to project more solid revenue numbers for the town. But Minyon said he was concerned about how the town would handle that anticipated influx of wealth.

“I don’t want to plan our budget on transfer taxes,” he said plainly, implicitly referencing the financial shortfalls some of the town’s neighbors have had in the slower real estate market of the last year or so. “The $11 million is off the table for me in terms of planning a budget.”

Harris said he understood the conservative outlook but that he felt a “best guess situation” might provide the town with the ability to make a five-year plan that could adapt under yearly budget provisions and still allow for major capital projects to be safely considered.

“One of the real benefits of a project like Millville By the Sea is that you have some kind of continuity and planning you can do over the course of a decade,” Harris said. He acknowledged there might be slow times and fast times for sales in the community, “But it is planned out so that you can reasonably expect this amount of money over the next 10 years.”

Minyon cautioned against planning on future revenues, though, noting the $4 million spent by Ocean View on its new police station right before transfer tax revenues began to fall and saying he didn’t want Millville to build such a facility only to then have to wonder how they’d pay police salaries if revenues dried up.

But Harris said the value to the town of MBS extended beyond those 10 years of building and initial sales. The average home resells every seven years, he said, providing a long-term income for the town even after build-out.

“We don’t want to be another Ocean View,” Bennett agreed. “But we have other revenue streams we haven’t discussed.” She said revenue planning was already set to be one of the things discussed at the town’s next budget workshop, leading into the kinds of discussions of the town’s future that Harris is encouraging from the council now, as Millville By the Sea prepares to build its first homes.