Millville house-moving ban reconsidered


Millville Town Council members met with town planning firm URS again on Nov. 30, for another in its series of full reviews of draft ordinances for the town. URS’s Kyle Gulbronson brought a full slate of supplemental ordinances for the council members to review that Thursday, dealing with issues such as permitted construction hours, sizes for accessory structures and wetlands buffers.

Council members were solidly behind a continuing ban on true “mobile homes” — those on a metal frame with axles, versus wood-framed structures moved onto a standard foundation — but they remained divided over one of the more sweeping and controversial moves that has come up in the town in recent months — a moratorium on the moving of houses within the town, enacted by the council as a resolution on Oct. 12.

Deputy Mayor Joan Bennett was still in strong support of that moratorium last Thursday, saying that no matter what ordinances the town might enact to control the practice that it should not allow it at all until the town was equipped to enforce it.

“At this time, town staff aren’t well enough equipped to add this to their responsibilities,” Bennett said, citing the town’s few administrative employees and the lack of a Building Officials Code Administrators(BOCA)-certified building inspector, though the town has recently hired a part-time, non-BOCA-certified code-enforcement official.

Interim Mayor Tim Droney disagreed, saying adamantly that he opposed a continuing ban. “Many of these have turned out to be nice houses,” he offered, adding that he had concerns that the town would also be negatively affecting the livelihood of house movers in the area if the ban continues.

“We can keep homes out of the Dumpster,” Droney advocated, noting some of the homes moved in the area were essentially given away as they were replaced by expensive new construction on lots closer to the beach and placed for little cost on empty lots by those westward property owners. He pointed to the need for more affordable housing in the area.

Aiming to assuage concerns about the problems associated with moving such homes into the town, Droney offered an extensive list of requirements that the town could make, he said, as a way to ensure problems such as those recently the subject of complaints on Cedar Drive — as well as others — were not the result of lifting the moratorium.

Among the requirements Droney suggested: a deed showing the applicant owns the destination property; an engineering survey of the property; a site plan; a timeframe for the move; all other required permits, such as entrance permits, in place; a landscaping plan; a refuse/clean-up plan; and approval of the final structure by the town.

Gulbronson sought to bridge the gap between ban and use-by-right by proposing that such structure moves should be done only by special exception, approved by and with conditions from the town’s Board of Adjustments, which could address issues such as setbacks and determine if the structure in question should be allowed in the town at all.

Bennett noted the kinds of judgments that would need to be made by town officials in such cases, saying they were clearly legal issues that the council should cede in favor of a BoA. “I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole,” Bennett said, noting the subjectivity involved in such decisions, whether done by a BoA or code enforcement official.

Burden on staff at issue

And still there were staff issues, she said. “The staff has more important things to do. They will need to determine the structure’s worthiness and they will need appropriate training. It’s a problem if we have a requirement to inspect these structures with no staff to do it.”

Bennett remained unchanged in her opposition, saying, “I’ve raised this issue before and I feel strongly about it. The only way to deal with it is to ban it – maybe not forever, but until we can handle it,” she allowed.

Droney suggested that an engineer be hired to inspect such structures, with Gulbronson saying those inspections would have to be performed both before and after a structure was moved. But Bennett then questioned who would pay for that expense — not the town, Droney assured her, leading into discussions of bonds and other ways to ensure applicants would pay for the required service.

“With these conditions, you will get to the point where they will seriously evaluate whether it’s worth moving,” Droney added, with Bennett noting that the town already needed to institute a specific fee for the moving of a house, rather than just assessing the usual building permit fee.

Chicken-and-egg:

ordinance, enforcement

Droney also referenced problems with the length of time during which house-moving projects have sometimes languished in the town, suggesting a 90-day timeline be mandated but raising more enforcement concerns from Bennett and Council Member Don Minyon.

Droney said the town would “stay on them” about that timeline, while Gulbronson noted the ability to impose fines for violations.

Gulbronson further noted the choice between allowing the moving of structures with just a permit, versus a conditional use or special exception — the last required in Ocean City, Md., while most towns in the area only require a permit. Council members favored it as a special exception, with Bennett still staunch in her opposition.

“If we do this, we must have the staff to support it. I still favor a ban,” she said. “Are we going to hire additional people? I feel like we’re in a chicken-and-egg situation if we pass an ordinance before we have the staff. We have to make sure this isn’t just one more ordinance we don’t enforce.”

Droney remained just as determined to lift the ban. “If it’s done, and done properly, it will work,” he assured her. Minyon was convinced, saying he was OK with the allowance by special exception with a checklist of requirements such as Droney had suggested. Other council members concurred.

Gulbronson said he would draft an ordinance that would cover those requirements, taking a page from Ocean City’s code book.

Also at the Nov. 30 meeting with URS:

• Council members agreed to limit hours for construction to between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, with no construction permitted on Sundays. Droney favored the hours, saying that prohibiting construction on Saturday — even during the summer — would have a negative impact on developers. He further proposed an exception for Millville By the Sea, saying “construction like never seen before in Sussex County” could be expected once that project “gets swinging” and that few near neighbors existed to be bothered. Council members agreed that utility, road and emergency construction work would be exempted, as would homeowners performing their own work.

• Gulbronson cemented previously proposed structure height limits of 35 feet in residential zones and 42 feet in commercial ones, with exceptions for non-habitable architectural features such as church steeples and for water towers, etc., with concerns noted about safety of people and structures should taller features fall.

• Setback encroachment allowances for bay windows and other architectural features were reduced from 5 feet to 3 feet, while the 10-foot allowance for a one-story open deck was reduced to 5 feet.

• The maximum size of accessory structures was reduced from 600 square feet to 400 square feet, while two-story garages and garage-top apartments were prohibited, with a new 18-foot height limit on such structures and the same setback requirements as the main structure.

• Council members agreed to set new fence height limits, favoring a 6-foot cap at the rear of a property and a 4-foot cap on other sides, with allowances to be granted for security or industrial fences.

• New landscape requirements will be drafted for commercial properties along Routes 26 and 17, with requirements for trees depending on lot size, as well as a prohibition on non-native and invasive species at those locations.

• The storage of boats, recreational vehicles and cars for sale in the front of a home were also addressed, with moves taken to limit such storage and push it to the rear yard, or side yard if screened.

• Council members settled on a Millsboro model for wetlands buffers, as recommended by Gulbronson. The buffers would set a 50-foot buffer from “wetlands” with a 100-foot buffer from “natural bodies of water.

• Gulbronson said he planned to add language regarding non-conforming lots, uses and structures to the draft document that would reflect typical ordinances in the area.

The council concluded the meeting with the notation that work on the town’s signage ordinances, and on the Board of Adjustments’ authority and procedures, are up to be tackled next. Their next meeting with Gulbronson was set for Thursday, Dec. 7, at 6 p.m. Once completed, the draft ordinance package will go up for a public hearing and possible passage into town code.