Milton officials wrestle with increase in area growth

January 19, 2024

Seldom in Sussex County do citizens want development, but that is the odd position residents of Milton have found themselves in on the subject of Scarlet Oaks, a proposed 163-unit residential development on Harbeson Road across from Mariner Middle School.

The annexation of the 50 acres of land for Scarlet Oaks is subject of a Saturday, Feb. 3, referendum, where voters will decide whether to accept the annexation. Should the referendum pass, Scarlet Oaks would move forward with the site-plan review process, overseen by Milton’s Planning and Zoning Commission. However, should it fail, developer Ribera Development has indicated it will take the development to Sussex County for approval, said Mayor John Collier said at town council’s Jan. 8 meeting. 

Resident Steve Crawford urged citizens to vote yes on the referendum.

“One of the stated reasons for the referendum was to be able to have more control over growth. ‘Let the community decide the fate of annexing this property.’ If the community votes ‘no’ to annex the property, that ‘no’ vote flies in the face of the reason for the referendum. The town loses all control over the planning of the development, including density restrictions, design restrictions, etc. Why would any current resident think that ceding control to Sussex County would be a good thing?” Crawford said.

Resident Al Benson also asked residents of Milton to vote in favor of annexation because if they don’t, the Scarlet Oaks residents will get all the benefits of town services without contributing to the town. 

Collier said, “The zoning that we allow is less dense than what [the developer] can get in the county, if [the developer] can get it rezoned to what [it] desires. It can be significantly more dense than what the town would allow.”

Allen Sangree, who helped collect signatures to force the referendum, took a different view.

“Because of all the recent annexations, the Town of Milton will be doubling in size. Think about that for a moment, doubling in size, geographically and in population. That means our jurisdictional responsibilities will have doubled as well. How soon will it be before we need a new town hall, new maintenance facilities and a new police station to keep pace with all the recent growth? I see a tsunami of infrastructure needs building up that will cost us all a lot of money down the road,” he said.

Sangree said as far as nonresidents using Milton roads and facilities, he thinks that is being exaggerated. “The main roads running through our town are all maintained by the state. Union Street, Federal, Mulberry, Lavinia, Atlantic Street, Front Street, Sand Hill, Shingle Point, parts of Chestnut, and the list goes on. They are all maintained by the state. Most people driving on our town-maintained roads will be residents, guests, repairmen, delivery trucks and an occasional sightseer. With all the growth in the county, all the main roads are experiencing large volumes of new traffic, but I don’t see how it is going to greatly affect our town-maintained streets.”

He concluded, “Jurisdictional control has its advantages, but you can't focus on that without considering all the accompanying responsibilities and implications and then seeing which way the scale tips.”

Scarlet Oaks represents just part of what has been an explosion of built and proposed development in and around Milton. Within Milton proper are the proposed Granary at Draper Farm development and its 1,350 units, Cannery Village 3B and its 96 units, and Cannery Village IV and its 117 townhouse units. There is also the under-construction Cypress Grove and its 240 units. 

Outside Milton are the planned Milton Village apartments, which include 696 units, and a proposal to rezone a 65-acre parcel near the intersection of Route 16 and Route 1 to heavy commercial to build a retail and entertainment complex, although no concrete plans have been disclosed. The latter property lies outside the town’s future growth area. 

Developments within the county near Milton’s doorstep led Collier to appear before Sussex County Council Jan. 10. He said the greater Milton area is carved up between three separate county council districts: District 2, represented by Councilwoman Cindy Green; District 3, represented by Councilman Mark Schaeffer; and District 5, represented by Councilman John Rieley, with Green representing the downtown area. He said citizens have told him that they feel there is a disconnect between residents of the Milton area and county council.

Collier asked council to consider two points: First, to expand the planning & zoning commission to have more representation with the Milton postal district; and second, to consider a mechanism to slow the influx of development applications in the rural areas within the Milton ZIP code. 

As a former council member, employee and now mayor of the town, Collier has worn a lot of different hats in town. He himself views one of the seminal events of recent town history as the decision to sell the town’s wastewater treatment plant to Tidewater Utilities in 2007. Collier said because the town no longer owns its own utility, it took away a bargaining chip the town could have used to slow growth.

“We had a great big stick to combat rapid growth,” he said. “When you give that up, you reduce the stick to a switch.”


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