Board OKs variances for Milford commercial projects

MILFORD — Milford’s board of adjustment granted variances for two commercial projects in town on Thursday

Darnell McPherson, a licensed funeral director, was granted three variances by the board for the new McPherson Funeral Services location he intends to build at 309 North St.

Milford’s Planning and Economic Director Rob Pierce said one request is for “a use variance to allow a construction of a funeral home in the R2 district,” which generally only include homes.

“The other two variance requests relate to where the building and parking area will be constructed,” Mr. Pierce said.

One of the applicant’s requests was for a waiver from the ordinance that limits structures built in the district to a footprint of 30% or less of the total lot size.

“The applicant proposes a lot coverage of 35% to be able to construct the proposed funeral home and parking area,” Mr. Pierce said. “In addition, the applicant is seeking a variance from the front setback requirement … which states the minimum front setback will be 30 feet.”

If everything goes as planned, Mr. McPherson’s new building will be three feet from the lot line.

His move to reconstruct a funeral home on the property where there was one until 2008 came after 11 years of litigation.

Mr. McPherson first began working at what was then called the Young Funeral Home in 2003.

“The Youngs had taken me in almost like a son. Then I continued it on behalf of the Youngs,” he said.

“Prior to Young’s Funeral Home, the Reese Funeral Home owned this particular property. They had one in Milford, one in Milton, one in Dover and one in Seaford,” Mr. McPherson said. “They ended up being classified as the oldest African-American funeral home in southern Delaware, so there’s a lot of history.”

In 2006 Mr. McPherson and the Youngs entered into a partnership and renamed the business the Young and McPherson Funeral Home, but that lasted less than two years.

“In about 2008,” Mr. McPherson said, “our building was struck by lightning.”

It caught fire and the structure suffered severe water damage. But Mr. McPherson wasn’t too worried at the time because he had insurance.

“I hired a contractor who was actually my stepfather’s client,” he said. “Unfortunately, during the course of the scope of rebuilding the funeral home, the adjustor and the contractor were on two totally different pages and he was just cutting corners left and right to the point that the insurance company stopped the payment on the building.”

In 2013, the city condemned the original structure, which was eventually torn down.

“The code official ordered the closure of the structure to prevent the building from becoming a public nuisance,” Mr. Pierce said.

Mr. McPherson took the contractor to court.

“We’re talking about years and years of going through litigation between the insurance company, the funeral home and the contractor,” he said.

Eventually, the court sided with Mr. McPherson and the contractor was forced to pay him back, but Mr. McPherson still wasn’t able to hold onto the property.

“We had a major business interruption claim, which unfortunately we weren’t able to receive, which hurt us big time financially,” he said. “We ultimately lost the building in taxes.”

But by 2019, Mr. McPherson was finally through all the litigation and was in a good place to take on a new project. He serendipitously came in touch with the last owner of the property.

“He and I were able to sit down and I discussed with him the legacy of this place,” Mr. McPherson said. “This was a pillar in the African-American community in the city of Milford.”

“Just putting it back together would bring tears to a lot of the elderly people that love the funeral home,” he said.

Today, Mr. McPherson has plans for a two-story structure from which he intends to continue the legacy of Reese’s and Young’s.

“I move to approve because of the historic nature of this particular business,” said Nadia Zychal, a member of the board. “It serves the community and it does not detract from the neighborhood. In fact, it supplies a very important service.”

The board also gave its unanimous blessing to another commercial construction project, a new First State Self Storage facility slated for 11 S. DuPont Blvd. between Haven Lake and Silver Lake near the Mispillion River.

“Due to the low-lying nature of this area and the river connection between the two lakes, there are wetlands that compromise a little more than a third of what we call the southern portion of this property,” said David Hutt, an attorney representing First State Self Storage.

“The applicant is looking to encroach into our wetland buffer area,” Mr. Pierce said. “In order to do that, they would need a variance from that section of the zoning code … which basically states that no buildings, structures or impervious surfaces, fill or obstructions to drainage will be situated nearer than 25 feet to a delineated wetland area.”

Mr. Pierce said the applicant needs the variance to regrade the lot.

“There’s a section on the eastern part of the property where some regrading activities will occur as part of the construction of a stormwater management pond,” he said, in addition to a section closer to the highway “in order to do some regrading to fit some of the improvements that need to be done along the entrance.”

Mr. Hutt stressed that the changes to the environment would be minimal and would further stormwater management imperatives in the immediate area.

“The goal of this application is to allow for very minimal land disturbance, which is largely a little regrading, and some replanting by the removal of invasive or foreign species,” he said. “Without a variance, the property is largely undevelopable because of how far and how difficult that steep bank makes it to manage that stormwater flow.”

“It’s this steep bank created by that grade change that leads to the variance request,” Mr. Hutt said. “If we can get the right vegetation in there at the right grade, it’ll help to stabilize those slopes for stormwater management.”

The end goal, he said, “would be non-erosive stormwater discharge into that Mispillion River connection between those two lakes.”

There was no opposition to the variance request from the board. Ms. Zychal moved to approve the variance request.

“I’d like to thank Mr. Hutt for the very detailed presentation he made,” she said. “The reasons he stated, like the exceptional practical difficulty with this site being undevelopable should the variance not be granted, is taken into account. That’s the primary reason I would vote to approve.”