Within the last three months, both Milford and Houston have held public meetings to debate annexation for two farms along the stretch of Route 14 that divides Milford and Harrington. For both, annexation would be the first step toward turning their farmland into housing developments.


It’s getting harder and harder to escape development in lower Delaware.

Since the housing boom of the mid-2000s, more and more land in the state’s rural areas has been bought up and repurposed — at least on paper — into residential neighborhoods. What wasn’t built before the market crashed two years ago is still on the books, and every so often, another one comes down the pipe.

Within the last three months, both Milford and Houston have held public meetings to debate annexation for two farms along the stretch of Route 14 that divides Milford and Harrington. For both, annexation would be the first step toward turning their farmland into housing developments.

The one closest to Milford, owned by the Thomas family, is now the newest part of that town, and zoned to allow up to eight housing units per acre, whether they’re townhouses, detached homes or apartment units. If they go right up to that maximum, the Thomas farm could hold 500 homes.

“It would not be in keeping with our way of life,” neighbor Noel Primos said at a September council meeting. “It’s a very rural area, and we appreciate our way of life. We want to keep it.”

Primos was among more than 40 of the Thomas’ neighbors who petitioned the city council to consider the “R-1” zone, which allows nothing but single homes on at least a quarter-acre of land each. But as engineer Phil Tolliver told them that night, low density doesn’t sell.

“There isn’t the market for R-1 in this day,” he said. “It’s not there.”

Meanwhile, about four miles to the west, the local contracting firm Fowler & Sons is looking to annex a 90.5-acre farm it bought more than three years ago into the town of Houston. That proposal could come to a vote as soon as Jan. 6, and would grow the town’s total acreage by more than a third overnight.

In terms of population, the numbers would barely budge — at least until construction starts. When he first went before Houston’s town council to ask for annexation, engineer Ring Lardner brought a map showing about 250 homes and eight commercial lots on the Fowler property.

Right now, according to census estimates, Houston has just 115 households in its borders. And just like the community a few miles east, neighbors see the end of their rural way of life if that changes.

“We have an opportunity to preserve what we have now for some time,” Houston resident Valerie Andrews said at a Dec. 2 meeting. “Yes, it may come, but I think right now we have the opportunity to put off what would be a high-density development that would increase our taxes and threaten the way we live.”

Keeping their neighborhoods rural is a personal matter for the residents who’ve spoken out against these projects, but passing them is no less personal for the owners.

“I certainly don’t want anybody to be hurt by this,” said Karen Moore, whose brother, Walter Thomas II, inherited the farm from their father. “This is the next step for our family … my brother has been doing this for almost six years — my father passed away and we’ve been dealing with this piece of property.”

Locals and government officials who support the annexations say the residents, whether they’re inside town borders or living on unincorporated land, will be better served if the local government has final say over development, and if they can integrate the new houses into city utility, police and fire systems, rather than leaving those matters up to Kent County Levy Court.

“We have an owner and developer who are prepared to develop, and they could go to the county … while I don’t base my decision on that, it’s a factor,” Milford council member Jason Adkins said on Nov. 8 before voting to bring the Thomas farm into the city.

They’re certainly more likely to get permission for higher density from the City of Milford. If Fowler & Sons or the Thomas family didn’t try for annexation and just went ahead to build on county land, the rate of one house per quarter-acre would look generous. Density starts at one house to an acre there, and gets more restrictive as the development gets bigger.

One of Levy Court’s more conservative members says that’s the way it should be. Eric Buckson, who represents the Milford area and points north, said that if local governments want to see development, even high-density development, annexation is the way to go.

“I don’t think Kent County’s government should be this one master government, and everybody needs to ask for their permission,” he said. “Any municipality should govern themselves, and that includes annexation. When you want to have high density, it should be in and around towns.”

But by the same token, he said, if they do annex, they should be serious about growing responsibly.

“Kent County doesn’t have a police force or a fire department, but if Houston or Milford annexes in, it’s on them to provide the necessary infrastructure. Anybody who’s faced with these decisions should think carefully about everything it entails.”

 

David LaRoss is a staff writer for the Milford Beacon, a sister paper of the Dover Post. Email David LaRoss at david@milfordbeacon.com