MILLVILLE — More than five hours of public hearing testimony was more than enough for this hot topic.
Sussex County Council April 20 deferred action on the conditional use application for Evans Farm — a proposed multi-family apartment development in the Millville/Ocean View area that faces stiff opposition.
“There is a lot of information to digest,” said District 4 County Councilman Doug Hudson.
Council will address the issue at a future meeting.
The proposal, presented by attorney David Hutt on behalf of the developer, Linder and Company Inc., is to build 17 apartment buildings with a total of 200 units, 17 single-story garages and a community center amenity on 50.6 acres along Old Mill Road and Railway Road.
Because the property is currently zoned GR-General Residential, a conditional use is needed for the project to move forward.
“This is not a change of zone application. This is not a high density application nor is there any bonus that is being sought here,” said Mr. Hutt. “What is proposed is the base density of four units to the acre, in one of Sussex County’s medium density residential districts — the GR zoning district.”
Sussex County Planning and Zoning forwarded this to council, recommending approval with conditions by a 4-1 margin on April 8. PZ Commissioner Kim Hoey Stevenson cast the one opposing vote.
There was no public support for the proposal voiced at the April 20 hearing before council, held at Delaware Technical Community College.
Opposition includes a petition initiative with nearly 1,500 signatures with hundreds of comments, through a concerted effort by Evans Farm Watch, a coalition of 13 communities on the peninsula.
“We’re not opposed to development. We understand that development can mean progress,” said Tom Goglia, a resident of Bay Forest. “But we think this is the wrong development in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Opposing concerns presented by Evans Farm Watch include traffic, overcrowding, potential contamination of private wells in other communities, public health and safety risk.
Additionally, Evans Farm parcel poses a stormwater threat to adjacent neighborhoods, the watch group contends.
Matthew Page, president of the Bethany Bay Homeowners Association Inc., testified that the proposed stormwater “retention will not be adequate to hold the water. Of course, if it fails it’s failing on our property, and we object to this aspect of the plan.”
Bay Forest resident Jackson Chin questioned what role the state, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and/or Soil Conservation District will have regarding stormwater retention.
Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Jamie Whitehouse said Soil Conservation has not yet intervened.
“If the conditional use was to move forward and was to be approved, the next step would be for the site plan to be reviewed by the commission,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “Prior to final (site plans) we must have a letter of no objection from Conservation District.”
County Councilman John Rieley, who represents Council on the Soil Conservation board, offered reassurance.
“I can assure … they are strict. In fact, we have nine families up in the Milford area that are being denied a certificate of occupancy right now because the developer hasn’t done a good job with the retention pond. So they don’t rubber stamp it,” said Mr. Rieley, adding that Soil Conservation is the authoritative body. “I’m just not sure that falls under our purview.”
The opposition maintains proposed three-story multi-family apparent buildings would be out of character with surrounding single-family residential communities. Mr. Page used neighboring Ocean City, Maryland and Fenwick Island as a comparative example, stating “the differences in development philosophy between, at that parting line, were jarring. The development at Ocean City was highly urbanized, highly paved over, high rise, urban. The development in Fenwick was much more broken, much more rural, much more Hamlet like. To me, much more hospitable.”
“An agreement for this conditional use will destroy that sense because not only will that lead to this development, but similar developments in the adjacent areas,” said Mr. Page. “It is basically taking a little piece of Ocean City and dropping it at the intersection of Railway and Old Mill. It just doesn’t belong. It is out of character.”
Mr. Page concurred that there are some three-story buildings in Bethany Bay. He noted that density is 550 residences on 420 acres, 1.3 units, and there is also approximately 200 acres of wood area as a visible buffer. “We have three-story units but they are much more widely dispersed,” said Mr. Page.
Darrell Wiles, who said he has background as a traffic engineer, offered his services to Evans Farm Watch. “I believe the traffic assessment on this conditional use application is flawed. First is failure to produce a traffic impact study,” Mr. Wiles said. “We ask that you protect our community, and don’t make this problem worse by allowing this development to go forward.”
Mr. Hutt acknowledged “this application certainly has received a great deal of response from the public. As the council knows, land use is not a popularity contest. When those matters are being decided there are land use tools that the council has at their disposal from which to make those decisions. Those decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. They are not made solely because of the volume of people who respond to something, whether it’s favorable or in opposition.”
Interestingly, Mr. Hutt noted this same property had been approved for 200 units through a conditional use adopted by council in 2011. Although the final site plan was granted in 2016, the project did not proceed and “the approval for that application ultimately lapsed,” Mr. Hutt said.
“As this is one of the few remaining undeveloped pieces of land that actually has an opportunity to be developed, the volume of opposition that has arisen to this application was surprising to the applicant,” Mr. Hutt said. “The surprise principally relates to the fact this 200 unit … had prior approval, and the plan that you are looking at is very similar … with a number of enhancements, some of which were made at the request of neighbors.”
Mr. Hutt said the applicant and applicant’s team sensed opposition’s reaction to the term “apartment.”
“The surprise was that the comments led a person to believe that apartment living is some sort of an inferior housing style. That is surprising because apartment living is probably a universal condition for most people at some point in almost everyone’s life …,” Mr. Hutt said.
“Certainly the applicant is not deaf to the opposition,” said Mr. Hutt. “The applicant has begun to also study having this, these 200 units, not be an apartment complex but instead be 200 condominium units. It would be the same structure, same design but instead it would be a form of ownership. If the applicant moves forward and these are apartments, they will be market rate apartments with annual leases.”
Depending on the number of bedrooms in a unit, rent would range from $1,300 to $1,900 a month, with a maximum two occupants per bedroom, Mr. Hutt said.
Mr. Page said he and Evans Farm Watch take exception to Mr. Hutt’s comment regarding “rentals,” stating Bethany Bay has a mix of townhouse, single family homes and three story apartments, with rentals.
“We’re not against development. We are against this development,” Mr. Page said.
Evans Farm Watch member Martin Lampner, president of Whites Creek Manor, said this proposal “is not the wrong development because it’s rental apartments, or potentially condos. We’re saying this particular development is not in keeping in the area it is going to be a part of.”
In southeastern Sussex County, Rt. 26 and Rt. 54 are busy corridors. In October 2020, during a county council meeting with Delaware’s Department of Transportation, Councilman Rieley suggested priority for a Transportation Improvement District, which DelDOT defines as “a geographic area defined for the purpose of securing required improvements to transportation.”
“I hope we take Councilman Rieley’s advice and create a TID on that Rt. 26 corridor,” said Councilman Mark Schaeffer. “I think it’s become abundantly clear after today’s hearing that that needs to happen sooner than later.”