Moving slowly, Dove Landing gets an extension in Millville

Date Published: 
December 23, 2016

A long-planned housing development in Millville may take even longer to get constructed, after the Millville Town Council this week voted unanimously to deny developers a third extension of the Town’s approvals for the Dove Landing project.

For about a decade, Dove Landing has been planned to be built off Burbage Road, but for nearly 10 years, the land has remained just field and forest. Developer Beazer Homes recently requested an 18-month extension of approvals for the project, which should have been adequate to revise their final site plan, post bond and start construction. The council had previously granted two even longer extensions for the project.

Dove Landing’s history begins in 2007, with the town council approving a final site plan, which expires in two years unless substantial construction has taken place. The developer was granted three-year extensions in both 2011 and 2014, which placed the latest deadline for substantial construction to have been completed at Jan. 14, 2017.

Dove Landing is considered unlikely to meet Millville’s definition of substantial construction by that date, so the past approvals are expected to become invalid.

Developers must prove unusual difficulty or hardship in order to receive an extension.

The local real estate market has changed since the Great Recession began in late 2007, which led to many local developers holding off on planned projects and requesting extensions of existing approvals, many of which were granted. Because the housing market has changed radically in the intervening years, Beazer has been re-designing Dove Landing’s layout.

The Millville Planning & Zoning Commission recently reviewed Beazer’s new concept, which could be developed into an official revised final site plan within a few weeks, said Steve Marsh, an engineer with GMB, representing Beazer. Among the changes proposed, the planned condominiums would be eliminated to meet market demand. The road layout would be similar, but the anticipated housing density could decrease.

If the extension had been approved, other permitting agencies would have viewed the changes as a modification, rather than a whole new plan requiring new applications, hearings and approvals. But without an extension, as of Jan. 14, design approval and permitting processes for the project must be restarted from scratch.

The Town of Millville could also cash in Beazer’s infrastructure bond for roads.

But, ultimately, Beazer owns the land and has a right to build there or sell it.

Marsh said Beazer hadn’t wanted to compete with itself, with another Beazer development having been built across the street, at Bishop’s Landing (less of a challenge during the housing boom).

Although Marsh said developers have been busy behind the scenes, council members said they wanted to see more progress on the ground. But Beazer’s Ed Gold said it’s too simplistic to ignore the changes that the past decade and economic downturn have brought.

The council unanimously denied the extension.

Councilman Steve Maneri said he understands the economic downturn in years past, but he hasn’t seen significant construction, apart from the main entrance and a few other elements.

“I think you’ve had enough time,” he said.

Nearly 10 years have passed with very little to show for it, said Mayor Robert “Bob” Gordon and Councilman Steve Small of the project.

Councilwomen Susan Brewer and Valerie Faden said they didn’t feel that, this time, there were any unusual circumstances that were beyond Beazer’s control.

Small said he felt the council should deny the extension, then “hold Beazer’s hand” to make the project happen faster with the new applications.

“Once you grant them final plan approval, they have two years to commence construction,” Code & Building Administrator Eric Evans told the council.

“They were trying to [amend], the way I understand it,” Evans explained of the request for the extension. “Now they have to submit everything all over as new. So, instead of an 18-month extension to break ground, it goes to 24 months.”

Beazer has attempted to sell Dove Landing in the past but never settled on a buyer or reasonable price.

“We’re no different from any other publically-traded company,” Gold said of their responsibility to shareholders when bonds come due.

Town Solicitor Seth Thompson had to redirect the conversation when Small began asking if Gold could promise that Beazer won’t use undeveloped lands to cast votes regarding other properties outside of Dove Landing. (Gold said Beazer will follow all town laws.)

HOA questions Dove impact

Residents of Bishop’s Landing told the council this week that they are concerned with Dove Landing’s impact on their homeowner association.

They said they believe the homeowner association was to be shared between Bishop’s Landing and Dove Landing. Since HOAs are only turned over to homeowners when a majority of houses are occupied, homeowners said they fear more years may pass before Beazer relinquishes HOA control to the residents. Instead of a 400-plus-home Bishop Landing HOA, they’d have to wait for an 800-plus-home dual HOA. Until then, Bishop Landing’s residents can’t really organize or begin saving for road or pond maintenance.

And that’s all outside of the Town’s purview. The Town of Millville only monitors whether people follow the town code. Agreements between neighbors, such as sharing parking spaces or creating an association, aren’t under the Town’s jurisdiction.

But an expired site plan doesn’t automatically affect the residents’ HOA contracts.

“The covenants are still attached to that land. It’s not as if the covenants disappear. It’s a deed restriction. It’s not really something in … our purview,” Thompson said.

Ambulance agreement complete

The final details were nailed down this week for the new Millville Volunteer Fire Company (MVFC) ambulance subscription in Millville. Under the Municipal Wide Discount Ambulance Subscription Service Agreement, every household in town limits will be required to pay a mandatory $35 fee, billed annually on the municipal tax bill.

That agreement covers service to every improved property (household or business), their residents, houseguests and employees, but not business patrons. Whenever covered people are transported by MVFC ambulance, their insurance will be billed first for the $800-plus fee. But the MVFC won’t charge the user the difference between what their insurance pays and the full ambulance fee.

Small voted against the measure and MVFC member Steve Maneri recused himself. Faden abstained from the vote. She said she disagreed with some details but didn’t want to cast a “no” vote that would completely disregard all the work the MVFC has done to address the council’s concerns, which had been heightened by an MVFC officer being charged in May with allegedly embezzling nearly $200,000 from the fire company.

In September, Faden had asked that some bylaws be changed and policies put in writing before Millville approved the contract. Many of the changes, which the MVFC’s membership voted to approve, were not reviewed by a third party, such as an accountant or attorney. Faden also said she felt some other loose ends weren’t put on paper.

She proposed changing to a one-year contract, which MVFC officials said is too restrictive.

“You guys have asked for a quarterly review of our financials … [and any future problems] would give you permission to terminate our agreement. You have asked us to do that, and we have agreed,” said EMS Chief John Watson.

Town Manager Debbie Botchie reminded the council, “[During] the whole process, we were talking a three-year agreement in good faith.” The MVFC hurriedly changed their bylaws to meet the council’s December deadline. Botchie said she understood council members’ concerns but felt they were easily fixed.

Gordon agreed that the contract is a “living document” and there are “pitbulls on this dais” who will help protect the Town in monitoring the MVFC’s financials. He and Brewer both voted in favor of the agreement, resulting in a 2-1-2 vote and its narrow approval.

Local volunteer fire companies are suffering under the burden of increased calls for services but fewer volunteers. The MVFC has also been impacted by the embezzlement scandal. But the MVFC’s membership has since approved many new internal controls, checks and balances.

And more than 98 percent of the stolen funds were recovered, according to MVFC administrative bookkeeper Velicia Melson, who discovered the problem in early 2015 and has been part of the efforts to correct procedural deficiencies. “I would say we’re obviously doing something correct.”

The MVFC is also a volunteer organization, apart from the paid EMTs and Melson.

Watson noted that, under the agreement, Millville residents would be contributing about $35,000 toward a $1.4 million budget for EMS coverage — only a 2.5 percent drop in the bucket.

“We’re trying to protect the community because of the tragic thing that happened to the fire company,” Brewer said.

Watson reminded the group that the MVFC has already pulled the funding out of its own operations to fund two full-time ambulance crews, “as promised … to give our community what we felt they deserved. … We went above and beyond before we had these financial agreements in place.”

In other Millville Town Council news:

• The MVFC got an extra boost of money from Millville’s new impact fee ($500 for each new commercial and residential construction in town). The Town has collected $82,000 in impact fees for fire/ambulance services. The funds are to only be used for outdated capital items (not salaries) used in the MVFC’s daily operations or to purchase items that enhance operations. The MVFC will use the funding to purchase a new SUV command vehicle for leadership to use at emergency scenes.

“It reflects the growth and the services for the fire department,” said Fire Chief Doug Scott. “It’s been great and we really appreciated it.

• Millville Town Hall will be closed from Thursday, Dec. 22, to Monday, Dec. 26, for the Christmas holiday and construction/electrical work in Millville’s new municipal building. Anyone needing immediate assistance during that time can contact Botchie at DBotchie@mvtown.com.

The town council’s next regular meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m.