Millville commences in-depth zoning overhaul

Millville officials sat down Nov. 8 for the first in a series of marathon discussions about the town’s zoning ordinances, beginning a page-by-page review of a draft ordinance from consulting planner Kyle Gulbronson of URS.

While the review is being conducted in informal, workshop-style sessions, the underlying meaning of the exercise is in the fact that the decisions made at these sessions will likely form the future face of Millville.

Annexation process altered

One of those decisions concerns the basic process of zoning properties as they are annexed into the town — a process that’s been handled relatively automatically in recent years, with property owners requesting their desired zoning as part of the annexation process and having it granted (if deemed suitable) at the same time annexation is done.

The process may have led to some surprises for those who weren’t paying attention to the town’s annexation decisions in the past, since a large parcel could come into the town zoned as commercial, with little more fanfare than the annexation of a single residential lot.

Council members moved to reduce the surprise factor and gain more control over the zoning of annexed parcels on Wednesday, asking Gulbronson to redraft the zoning code to automatically annex all incoming properties to the lowest intensity zoning district the town had to offer.

Annexed property owners would then seek rezoning in a separate request before the town, enabling more scrutiny and input from neighbors and officials alike to what uses and development constraints are on parcels that have been newly annexed into the town.

In the case of the planned Home Depot on Route 17, the two-step process might have provided neighbors more time and opportunity to give input on the suitability of commercial zoning. Under the proposed change, the property would have initially been zoned as Agricultural, permitting both the raising of crops and light-density residential uses.

Property owners would then have applied for commercial rezoning, creating a second public forum for consideration of the impacts of such zoning before it was granted.

Gulbronson also recommended automatic agricultural zoning as a way to slowly bring in properties that weren’t quite ready for full residential zoning, due to infrastructure progress at the edge of town. He said zoning could then be upgraded over time, as infrastructure caught up.

As it stands, opponents of the Home Depot project have questioned whether enough notice was given of the zoning and whether enough consideration of possible large-scale commercial use was made in light of the town’s single-zone commercial code.

Commercial zone to split

That was another issue the council dealt with this week, working with Gulbronson to form the basic concepts of a two-district commercial zoning code for the town.

The first district was initially referred to as a “town center” district, or C-1, but is likely to be renamed to “village district” or something similar, to avoid confusion with the Millville Town Center retail area.

It would center on the town’s existing Route 26-based commercial area and feature light or moderate commercial uses such as the ones that already exist there and those deemed compatible with them.

Gulbronson noted that many of the existing businesses had been converted from former residential structures and suggested that a 35-foot height cap on structures within the new district would help keep it compatible with the town’s residential areas.

Meanwhile, the proposed C-2 district would focus on shopping centers and similarly heavier commercial uses, such as those that already exist at Food Lion, Millville Town Center and Home Depot properties.

Gulbronson warned council members that the three properties would have to be rezoned as part of the new C-2 district, since new districts have to be formed with some initial property therein. But he said he expected those property owners would welcome the change, because it would cement them in a more appropriate district than the other planned commercial zone.

The town may also get a third new district under Gulbronson’s draft — an overlay district to indicate where the town’s 100-year flood area lies. Gulbronson said the overlay zoning would serve as an extra, hard-to-ignore reminder to property owners that while they might be permitted uses in a residential zone, for instance, they should be aware of possible restrictions imposed by the flood hazards on the property.

Ag district to be preserved

Council members moved on to the details of the town’s individual zoning districts, starting with agriculture. Interim Mayor Tim Droney noted a particular liking for sporadic bits of green amidst the town’s residential neighborhoods and businesses, so the retention of the ag district will be more than a development pause or holding ground.

Gulbronson also noted that the district was designed to protect water resources, watersheds, scenic views and agricultural uses, while allowing low-density single-family homes.

Council members debated other permitted uses, including seasonal produce stands (six months per year) and housing for permanent farm workers. On the last count, Deputy Mayor Joan Bennett noted the need to differentiate between two types of “mobile” homes, which might be used for such housing.

Bennett said Sussex County code differentiates between T- and CT-type mobile homes, with the latter not being meant for routine mobility but rather to be moved once and set on a permanent foundation. The town currently prohibits “mobile” homes, but the differentiation would allow “manufactured” and other similar dwellings that could be used or replace existing T-type mobiles on lands annexed in the future.

Council members also considered the issue of agricultural uses other than the raising of crops — namely the raising or keeping of animals. The use would be prohibited under the current draft, since it is not specifically provided for. And council members were reluctant to change that — especially considering the complications of code that would need to determine how many animals could be kept, what types and in what conditions.

Residential refined

The town’s residential zone was also fine-tuned on Wednesday, with a designation for medium-density single-family homes and a height cap of 35 feet.

Council members considered a 42-foot cap that had been used in the residential planned community (RPC) district, with townhomes in mind, noting an existing limit of three stories with a basement and wondering if the higher cap would be a real concern.

But Gulbronson warned them of the potential consequences down the road with single-family homes, referring to the same height limit as exists now in the unincorporated county and four-story homes towering over neighboring cottages.

“As land becomes a commodity closer to the coast,” he said, “what you think won’t happen could happen in five or 10 years.”

It was with that forward-looking advice that council members also accepted Gulbronson’s suggestion to upgrade the minimum size on residential lots with access to central water and sewer. The new minimum size would mean a lot with at least 75 feet of road frontage, 100 feet in depth and of 10,000 square feet. Gulbronson also suggested the town consider a minimum of 100 feet of frontage on highway fronting lots.

Concerned over the possibility that sheds could be converted into small houses, the council also agreed to increase the minimum size of a residential structure to 1,200 square feet of livable space, from the current 1,000 square feet.

In defining the central water and sewer services required for the smaller lots (otherwise, it is a half-acre and 100 feet of frontage), council members agreed not to consider community sewer as suitable. Instead, public sewer and water will be the hallmark.

Bennett also added a requirement for applicants to prove, in writing, that such services were expected within 90 days of applying for a building permit if not already in place, rather than simply offering assurances that service was expanding in that direction.

And Gulbronson capped the changes with a 30 percent lot coverage maximum, including all structures on the property.

RPC retooled

With the town’s RPC ordinance drafted in 2000, minimal changes were expected. But Gulbronson is making the major shift of turning RPC from a conditional use to a full-fledged zone.

And council members continued the changes Wednesday, deciding to prohibit commercial uses inside the RPC zone. They cited the desire to consolidate commercial uses where infrastructure could be provided in the most efficient of ways, keeping future police travel to a minimum and defining the town’s identity in distinct commercial areas rather than spread across neighborhoods.

Mixed residential and commercial uses, they decided, would be kept to the town’s new master planned community (MPC) zone. Alternatively, Gulbronson said the RPC district would suit developers who were seeking to create high-quality communities with mixed styles of housing — such as the townhomes permitted in an RPC that aren’t allowed in the town’s residential zone.

The RPC district will also allow the same kind of clustering the county’s cluster ordinance is designed to encourage, with smaller lots and setbacks and larger areas of concentrated open space, including recreational uses.

The town will have more control under the new zoning, he said, since a specific set of criteria will be set up to measure all RPC applications, and the burden of proof for those criteria on the developer. The list includes suitability for the site, minimizing of environmental impacts, maximization of drainage and other public issues, infrastructure impacts and a cost/benefit analysis indicating whether the town would benefit or suffer loss from the project.

Along the way, council members tackled the issue of possible design standards, eventually showing support for a mid-range solution between the extremes of an advisory-only document indicating preferred design elements and a full-fledged architectural review board. Gulbronson recommended the design standards as a next step as the town works on its comprehensive plan.

Discussing such issues, council members dealt with some alternative styles of housing Gulbronson had proposed be permitted in the RPC district, from off-center homes (slid toward one side of a lot, with a driveway on the other) to multiplex (also known as “big houses,” with an apparent large single-family home instead divided into four or more units) and village homes (with just a front stoop and sidewalk between the house and street).

Such neo-traditional styles are already planned for Millville by the Sea, he noted, and are compatible with Livable Delaware and affordable housing mandates. But council members balked at “lot-line” houses, which feature a small courtyard surrounded by a masonry fence, and they eliminated it as an allowed type.

Council members also tackled the 10-acre minimum size for an RPC, eventually deciding that developers would make their own calls on the feasibility of such a smaller RPC, with a requirement for roads, open space and recreation, as well as homes. They also increased the open-space requirements from 15 percent to 20 percent.

They know it when they see it

In closing out discussion of the town’s two proposed commercial districts, Gulbronson asked a $64 question: In addition to permitted uses, what did the town want to prohibit?

The ideas ranged from adult entertainment, junkyards, gas stations and drive-through fast-food restaurants to bars, nightclubs and taverns (restaurants serving alcohol would continue to be permitted), convenience stores and auto-repair shops. Some uses were shifted to conditional uses, such as veterinary clinics and kennels, while others will likely end up in a C-2 commercial district — such as rental storage.

Council members ruled out permitting paid parking lots and garages for the near future, though Gulbronson foresaw a day when the state government might manage a lot designed to bring people closer to the coast through mass transit over already-crowded Route 26. The council said they knew beach shuttle service was coming for Millville By the Sea, but balked at the idea of a public park-and-ride in the town.

Gulbronson will incorporate those and other ideas from the council members in his draft of the two potential commercial districts. Council members will consider them and more of the lengthy draft zoning ordinance at their next meeting, set for Thursday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m.