Neighbors debate building of garage in Milford

MILFORD — The city’s board of adjustment served as a sounding board Thursday for neighbors to express their concern about a garage a couple plans to build on their Marvel Road properties.

After some debate, board members sided with the property owners, allowing the garage to be built via two approved variances to the city’s zoning code.

“We just want a garage,” said Myra Mitchell, who owns the properties at 605 Marvel Road with her husband, Randy. “There’s already a garage there, but it’s small, and it’s old, and we’re going to tear that down and, then, put up a new garage.”

The Mitchells are consolidating the two lots they own into one to be able to construct the new building.

Ms. Mitchell said the house’s bi-level layout necessitates the need for a detached garage.

“There would be no way to attach it to the house,” she said. “In a bi-level, you don’t have an attic, and there’s not a lot of storage, so we’re going to have closets and that type of thing in the garage.”

But Stanley Karotka, who lives nearby, contested this.

“When they initially started the renovations on their property, the existing two-car garage was attached to the main building,” he said.

“They removed a walkway from there and put a patio out there right now,” Mr. Karotka said. “The garage was initially attached to that building.”

Mr. Mitchell denied this.

“The house was never attached to the garage,” he said. “There was always a 4-foot walkway or more between the house and the existing garage.”

Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director, said there are two variances involved in Ms. Mitchell’s request.

“Private residential garages should not exceed 750 square feet,” according to the city’s zoning code, he said. “The applicant is seeking approval to construct a 1,320-square-foot detached accessory building.”

The other element of the code the Mitchells want a variance from is the mandate that “detached accessory buildings and uses should be located to the rear of the building setback line of the principal building.”

Because their properties are wider than they are deep and buffered by the flood plain of the Presbyterian Branch on their back side, the new garage would need to be constructed close to the front of the lot where the primary structure is.

Additionally, Ms. Mitchell said she wanted to construct the garage at an angle, for aesthetic purposes, which would bring it even closer to the front property line.

“The application is currently comprised of two parcels for which the applicant is in the process of doing a lot of consolidation in order to accommodate the construction of any kind of accessory building,” Mr. Pierce said.

“It should be noted that the applicant is required to consolidate the two parcels in order to construct the detached accessory building if approved,” he said.

If the two adjacent lots the Mitchells own are not combined into a single tax parcel, something the couple is currently in the process of doing, they would not be permitted to construct the garage, which is slated to bisect the property line dividing the two lots.

“Based on the city’s zoning code, an accessory structure can only be constructed on a property that has a principal structure,” Mr. Pierce said in an email Friday. “The other lot was vacant and couldn’t just have the detached garage on it. Also, the detached garage would need to be 5 feet from the property line instead of sitting on it.”

Neighbors of the Mitchells brought up a wide array of concerns about the project, ranging from environmental fears about flooding to potential fire hazards to simple aesthetic concerns about the structure’s size.

The Mitchells run a painting business, and that industry often uses flammable materials.

“A garage of that size lends itself to supporting the business that the family runs,” said Jane Bowman, who lives next door.

“My concern is that from time to time, products will be stored in there that are flammable,” she said. “Since their property is adjacent to ours and we have a lot of foliage, if lightning were to strike a flammable product, it would strike our foliage, and the house would go up in flames.”

Christopher Antonik, who also lives nearby, contested that the potential for commercial use is there.

“I think a garage of that size would send itself to the commercial purposes,” he said. “History has shown here recently that they have used it for commercial storage, at least for commercial vehicles.”

Mr. Mitchell characterized these statements as false accusations.

“I have a shop at 202 Charles St., where I run the business from, and I’ve had it for 30 years,” he said. “Then, I have two other buildings in town that I keep my equipment at.”

The board’s Chairman Brendon Warfel also dismissed these concerns about commercial uses.

“As far as storing products there, it’s a residential area, and you’re not allowed to run a business out of there,” he said. “I believe they have another business property in town where they would keep everything.”

Most of the concerns the group of neighbors expressed were environmental.

“The Presbyterian Branch is a relatively small stream that runs directly behind the property at 605 Marvel,” Mr. Antonik said.

He said all the new impervious surfaces constructed in both the immediate neighborhood and the broader vicinity have made flooding much worse.

“All this runoff goes into this tiny little stream, and we have all seen over the past 10 years to the present that the flooding has gotten worse and worse and worse,” Mr. Antonik said.

“That stream goes underneath Woodland Drive, and it’s just two relatively small concrete pipes that have to handle the volume of water,” he said.

Mr. Antonik said the situation has left his property extremely waterlogged.

“You sink up to your ankles once you get 10 to 15 feet from that stream,” he said. “Anything that can be done to limit the additional runoff into that stream is very important.”

Mr. Mitchell said he also has issues with flooding on his property.

“The stream out back does flood,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s something the Army Corps would have to do or (Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control) or something like that would have to do it.”

Jo Ann Watson, another neighbor of the Mitchells’, said the couple has done other things that will create problems in the flood plain.

“They have removed trees and shrubbery and dump trucked loads of fill in that back area,” she said.

Mr. Karotka also attested to this.

“One Saturday or Sunday, they must have rolled 20 or 30 dump trucks of dirt into the back there,” he said. “With the amount of water that’s overflowing in the creek behind the houses, it’s going to start eroding that. That dirt is going to wash back into the creek and create further problems.”

Ms. Mitchell said the dirt was to be used in the construction of the garage and that it would not be staying in the flood plain for the long term.

“The dirt in the yard is there only due to the contractor stating that we needed dirt to backfill around the garage,” she said in an email Friday.

“We had no idea that it was going to take 12 weeks to get the permit to build the garage,” Ms. Mitchell said. “I believe backfilling around something that gets built is a common practice.”

She added that “some dirt may be used to fill in ruts caused by trucks on the property during construction.”

Ms. Watson said she “spent a good many years of my career working in wetlands-protection programs for the state of Maryland. What they’ve filled is a wetland adjacent to Presbyterian Branch, and we’re worried about continued runoff continuing to flood our property.”

Mr. Mitchell denied the dirt was dumped into a wetland.

“That’s totally false,” he said. “I didn’t do that.”

Ms. Watson said she wants someone to come take a look at the property.

“Has anyone looked at that property since they’ve been working on it?” she asked. “Is there an environmental group in Milford that looks at potential impacts to waterways in your town?”

Mr. Pierce said his office would be able to do that.

“The building official came and inspected the building,” he said. “We can have someone take a look to see if there’s been any encroachments in the flood plain. This is the first we’ve been made aware of it.”

Ultimately, Chairman Warfel dismissed concerns about the Mitchells adding more impervious surfaces to the area near the flood plain.

He said that if the couple was not going to consolidate the two lots, another home could be built on the second lot, which would add more impervious surface to the immediate area than the new garage will.

“If you leave it two separate lots, you could go there and build a 3,000-square-foot house,” he said. “They’re reducing the potential for coverage by combining the two lots and putting the one garage.”

Many neighbors also took issue with the garage’s size.

“My concern is that an edifice that size in the neighborhood is not consistent with what other people have,” Ms. Bowman said.

Vice Chair Nadia Zychal agreed with this.

“I actually do see an issue because they’re doubling the size of the garage that existed there,” she said.

“I have no issue if they were to build a garage on the same footprint, but to build a garage twice the size and not keeping with the rest of the neighborhood does impact the nature of the neighborhood,” she said.

However, she was outvoted by the other two members of the committee in a motion to approve the variance to the code that requires detached garages to be 750 square feet or less.

And on the second motion concerning the property, all three members of the committee voted to allow the Mitchells to construct their garage closer to the front lot line than the primary structure, citing the difficulties of building on a lot adjacent to a flood plain.