Millville mayor gets land deal approved

Millville Mayor Gary Willey says that after 24 years on the town council he’s about ready to take a break and settle down to live quietly for a while in his new home — just outside the town’s limits. Willey said Saturday that he wasn’t prepared to foreswear bringing the property into Millville town limits over the long-term future, but for right now, he has no plans to do so. “Not at this time,” he stated.

Willey’s desire to live on the property has recently been the source of rumors in the area, and among members and plot owners in the Millville Cemetery. The cemetery owns 2 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to Willey’s property in the Mill Run Acres, and Willey — one of five board members of the cemetery association — proffered a $100,000 offer for the piece of landlocked property, with a set of rather significant strings attached in the board’s favor.

The primary rumor ran that Willey was eager to purchase the land to ease his new home’s annexation into Millville proper, so he could remain mayor. But, confronted with that rumor at the cemetery’s membership meeting on March 11, Willey denied any current plans to seek annexation and emphasized his desire to just “live quietly” there for a while. He was not willing to rule out any such move in the long term, however.

Another rumor regarding the proposed sale alleged that an out-of-town buyer had plans to purchase the 2-acre share with an eye toward eventually forcing the cemetery to close so the whole property could be developed for residential or commercial use. Willey vehemently rejected that notion, asserting his family’s roots in the area, his own long-term residency and restrictions on future development that were part and parcel of the tentative sale agreement he had made with the cemetery’s board of directors.

The restrictions not only bar the 2 acres from future development as any kind of multi-structure project, it limits the entire combined parcel — as merged with Willey’s current lot — to a single residential structure, in perpetuity.

In leading the cemetery’s membership meeting, Hal Dukes, a member of the cemetery board and local real estate attorney, said the board had not only insisted on such a restriction to maximize the amount of open space around the cemetery but that discussions with county planning officials had made it clear that approval of building plans would be focused on keeping the combined lot limited to a single, single-family home, surrounded with open space.

As it stands, the 2-acre section of cemetery property could not be developed without the cooperation of the county and an owner of another adjacent property. It has no access to county roads and thus would need to receive access through an adjacent property. The cemetery would not grant such an easement on its property, desiring to limit traffic in proximity to the graves. So, the only real value of the property would be to those already owning another adjacent parcel, Dukes said.

Dukes emphasized that the limited use and appeal of the landlocked parcel was the reason why it was being recommended by the board for sale at just $100,000 — below the typical price for a parcel of that size in the area. Some cemetery members argued that the price was too low, considering the average value of nearby parcels. They called for the property to be put up for sale through public channels, to ensure the maximum price was being received.

But Dukes said he felt the $100,000 price was a fair market value for the cemetery acreage, since it was essentially undevelopable by anyone other than the owners of the three contiguous properties. He emphasized that the cemetery board members had all agreed that the sale to Willey — a friendly neighbor willing to take on the restrictions — was the best option to dig the cemetery out of its current financial bind.

Indeed, the Millville Cemetery has had trouble maintaining enough cash in its accounts in recent years to even keep the grass cut. Maintenance runs at least $3,000 per year currently, Dukes estimated. Plot owners and family members of those buried in the cemetery have periodically taken it upon themselves to mow and tend to other maintenance chores, and sporadic donations have made a small dent in the cemetery’s funding crunch.

Over the years, the original trustees of the cemetery not only provided some of that maintenance themselves and offered plots in payment to maintenance workers when finances were lean but also leased a portion of the property for farming, all in an attempt to keep up the grave areas.

But — bottom line — the cemetery needs a reliable source of cash with which it can continue to pay for mowing and other maintenance, now and in decades and centuries to come. Without that, Dukes and some members said, they feared the cemetery — one of the few private cemeteries remaining in the immediate area — would join its former fellows in becoming the foundation for a housing development.

Indeed, Dukes said he had seen cases where several other private cemeteries in the area had been sold and housing developments built, with not a single body disinterred, he said.

The Millville Cemetery is further hurt by the lack of plots sold in recent years — just a handful, at the bargain price of $300 each — and even though who had purchased plots in recent decades had often opted to be buried elsewhere. That could mean plots already sold would be back on the market.

All told, it adds up to both a lack of funds and a surfeit of space in the cemetery, with nearly 100 plots remaining — about half the total space in the section currently being used. Wooded and brush-covered sections that have already been plotted contain more than 30 potential grave sites. And then there is the section of property at the rear of the cemetery — the 2 acres of partially wooded land that backs up to Willey’s lot in the Mill Run Acres development.

The alternative to selling the empty acreage, Dukes said, was to offer cemetery plots up as a sort of “potter’s field” where the indigent of far-away cities could be buried cheaply when their family was unable to pay for a plot nearer to their homes. That would mean strangers buried among the local dead, and with strong family connections among those dead and most of the current plot owners and cemetery members — they agreed that was an undesirable solution.

Willey said he had been looking into acquiring the property from the cemetery for about a year, bringing the idea directly to his fellow board members, and he vehemently objected to the notion that his offer should be rejected simply to open the sale up to the public in hopes of a higher price.

Dukes said the $100,000 would serve as seed money for a trust account that would be guaranteed to garner at least $4,000 to $5,000 per year in interest, in perpetuity — enough to cover basic maintenance at the cemetery and perhaps, over time, save enough to build a fence around it.

Most of the objection to the proposed sale came under the heading of lack of information.

Cemetery members said they hadn’t heard from the board since the 1997 meeting at which the board was first established. Some said they had been unaware of the state of disrepair at the cemetery, and no one had directly asked them for funding to help with maintenance costs, they argued. Perhaps plot owners and families would kick in for maintenance, now that the problem was known. Regardless, the sudden decision by the board to sell the property came as a surprise to some, and they questioned how the financial issues and sale had been handled.

Between that surprise and the notion that a higher price might be obtained on the open market, many of the members were unwilling to immediately commit to the sale to Willey, though the deed of sale had already been drawn up and signed by the board (Willey excepted).

But when it came to a vote among the members present at the March 11 meeting, it was about a 2-1 split, in favor of selling the property and again in favor of selling it to Willey with the terms he had agreed to.

While Willey professed no plans for annexation into Millville, part of the agreement calls for the newly combined property to come under the purview of the town, as well as the county and the Mill Run Acres homeowners’ association.

Dukes said the move was a way to ensure that were the restrictive development terms broken in the future — by Willey or a future owner — an entity with more legal clout than the cemetery board or a single property owner would be able to ask for legal enforcement of the restrictions to that sole single-family home.

The property will not be part of Millville, but rather be absorbed into Mill Run Acres and have its access to roadways through the parcel in that development that Willey already owns. Mill Run Acres is in unincorporated Sussex County, Dukes noted, and thus the county will also have control over its future development. And Millville will, by virtue of the agreement, have the ability to play guardian to the deal and its accompanying restrictions.

On the other side, Dukes championed Willey’s position as a guardian to the cemetery. He described Willey’s offer for the land as an answer that had arisen in the cemetery board’s search for answers to its financial problems and said he believed Willey would be a friendly neighbor who would keep an eye out for disturbances at the cemetery once he made the neighboring land his home.