Sidewalk issue complicates Milford property’s redevelopment

At present, the sidewalk on the south side of Northwest Front Street stops at the line between Jamie Masten’s property and the Lakeview Apartments to the east. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

MILFORD — At Milford’s last City Council meeting, the most contentious issue was whether a temporary sidewalk waiver should be granted in the proposed redevelopment of a property on Northwest Front Street, overlooking Silver Lake.

The disagreement illuminated an ideological divide on the council over the best way to approach expanding the city’s sidewalk network and the degree to which concessions are appropriate in promoting commercial development in Milford.

The lot “is a beautiful waterfront property at the city’s gateway,” currently occupied by a derelict building, said the owner and potential developer Jamie Masten. He would like to tear down the old structure, which formerly housed L&W Insurance, and “build a state-of-the-art office building.”

The council unanimously passed a motion to change the lot’s zoning from residential to commercial on June 22, but a proposed measure to temporarily let Mr. Masten’s Mispillion Realty off the hook in regard to the city’s sidewalk mandate led to about an hour of heated debate. Eventually, the proposal for a sidewalk waiver was narrowly defeated in a 5-3 vote.

At present, the sidewalk on the south side of Northwest Front Street stops at the line between Mr. Masten’s property and the Lakeview Apartments to the east. The council’s denial of Mr. Masten’s request for a sidewalk waiver means that to carry out his project, he would be required to continue that sidewalk down to the western edge of his property, near where the frontage road that crosses the railroad track begins.

Mr. Masten said that without the sidewalk waiver, the cost of building on the lot would balloon given that it is on Del. 14 and would require approval from the Delaware Department of Transportation.

“When you have to deal with DelDOT, you better put on your patience pants and get out your checkbook,” Mr. Masten said. “DelDOT will micromanage the project and take months to approve it. The sidewalk that costs $3,000 to install will cost $25,000 to get engineered, approved and installed.”

Todd Culotta, a representative for Milford’s 2nd Ward on the council, was one of the most vocal defenders of the sidewalk waiver.

“He’s got a site plan that says what he wants to do there, which is basically just to build that building and use the current setbacks (and) entrances,” Councilman Culotta said. But since the required sidewalk would modify a state road, “now, he has to go back and update his site plan with the sidewalks, submit it back to the state, and now, the state will come back and review it in its entirety.”

He said DelDOT’s review process could completely change the dynamic of the project, possibly rendering it economically unfeasible.

“If it’s not economically feasible, then he won’t do anything,” Councilman Culotta said. “That building will continue to sit the way it is and be an eyesore.”

While Vice Mayor and Ward 4 Councilman Jason James deemed Mr. Masten’s concerns valid, he voted against the sidewalk waiver on the principle of expanding the city’s sidewalk network as much and as quickly as possible.

Sidewalk construction work at Northwest Front Street.

“When I came on City Council in January 2019, there was talk about sidewalks, … but there had been talk about sidewalks for 20 years, and nothing had been moving,” Councilman James said. “My position is that we’ve always said … we want Milford to be a walkable town, and in order to be a walkable town, you need to have sidewalks.”

Councilman James said he has no problem granting a sidewalk waiver for a project if he feels the requirement wouldn’t further the connectivity of Milford’s sidewalk network, because “we don’t want a sidewalk to nowhere.” But he said that’s not the case with Mr. Masten’s property.

“His sidewalk would be the beginning of connecting the gap” between the residential area around the Parson Thorne Mansion and the Walgreens down the road at the intersection with U.S. 113. “So, to waive him wouldn’t make sense, because then, no one else would ever have connectivity.”

“We can’t even talk about the next piece unless this piece happens,” he said. “His property is the property that can make the connectivity happen. … We have to start somewhere.”

But Mr. Masten and Councilman Culotta believe building this sidewalk would be a hazard to pedestrians in the short term, since it would not continue onto the property west of Mr. Masten’s.

“If they put one there, we’ve extended it down, but it’s still a sidewalk to nowhere,” Councilman Culotta said.

“If you build a sidewalk that leads to nowhere, you’ve created a hazard,” Mr. Masten said. “You’ve led the pedestrian further away from the intersection or crosswalk, which is the safest place to cross.

“Now, the pedestrian will either have to turn around and double back or jaywalk,” he said. “It creates the opposite effect it was designed to cure.”

Councilman Culotta’s solution to this was to build all the sidewalks on that section of Northwest Front Street at the same time.
“It’s more cost-effective overall,” said the councilman, who is a contractor by day, “but also, you would have a completed sidewalk on both sides of that road, so you’re not hopping from one to the other in the middle of traffic.”

But this would be hard to coordinate given that in Milford, individual property owners, rather than the city, are responsible for the sidewalks adjacent to their homes and businesses.

“I think it makes more sense for the city to take care of the sidewalks,” Councilman Culotta said. “I’ve always said that.”

Councilman James said he used to agree, but “upon investigation, this ordinance has been on our books for a long time. I’m talking decades,” he said. “A lot of municipalities have the same type of ordinance, so it’s not unique to Milford.”

He said that fact was a key reason the sidewalk network in Milford has historically been so spotty. For some poorer citizens, he said the financial burden was too much, and their sidewalks just went unmaintained.

“I wrote the language to have the citizens participate without bearing the entire burden, because there had been neglect on the city’s part for some time also,” Councilman James said. “(Citizens) will not have to pay the whole amount. They will have an opportunity to pay a lesser amount based on their income.”

Now that the council has approved that legislation, Councilman James said sidewalks are being constructed and repaired across the city.

“We want to keep this going, and we don’t want to just give a blanket waiver to anyone, whether it’s commercial or residential, when you have others that are paying their fair share as we speak,” he said. “You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot looking out for one while not looking out for the all.”

Councilman Culotta’s focus was on Milford’s economy.

“We need to appreciate what it means to be a business-friendly community, and that means helping investment come to Milford,” he said. “We have to understand the impact of our decisions to the overall investment climate in Milford.”

Councilman James did not disagree.

“The question is, should there be any participation from the city on making sure this connection happens?” he asked. “That’s a whole other conversation that just hasn’t been had.”

Mr. Masten had some ideas for that conversation, if and when it does take place.

“I would be fine with paying 100% of the cost of the sidewalk to the city or DelDOT, so when a master plan is ready, they’ll have my contribution,” he said. Since his waiver request was only temporary, he “would have to install the sidewalk in the future anyway when the sidewalk makes sense.”

Mr. Masten has not abandoned the project, but he said it was now less likely to be carried out as originally planned.

“When I first started in the business,” the additional costs associated with DelDOT’s involvement “would have killed the deal,” he said. “Now, it may not, … but I may need to reduce the quality of the building.

“At this point, I’ve moved on to other projects, and I’ll have to rethink my investment strategy in Milford.”