Milton City Council probes developer on Industrial park plan

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

MILTON—Milton's city council chambers were so packed with residents that people had to stand in the back of the room Tuesday as developer Bill Watson pitched his plans to annex 1,500 acres of land he owns into the city.

While the city council did not invite the dozens of residents at the meeting to speak or ask questions, council members peppered Watson with questions about his proposal.

Tuesday was the first time Watson had approached the city council on his plans to build a 3- to 5-million-square-foot industrial complex on land he and at least one other person own west of Milton.

Watson told the council he wants the city to commit to annexing the land before the project or an Interstate interchange justification report he's paying for moves forward.

He has not formally petitioned for annexation, and he has not filed plans for the project or for zoning or land use changes with the city of Milton or with the towns of Milton or Fulton, where the land is located.

Council members Tuesday pressed Watson on his plans, including the fact he's seeking city annexation before he receives state or federal approval for an interchange he's offered to pay for at County M.

After a presentation by Watson and his project partner, developer Jeff Helgesen, council member Don Vruwink told Watson he'd prefer to see the city hold off on handling an annexation request until Watson's proposal for an interchange gets the green light from the state.

Watson has said he hopes the state and federal governments can speed the process of getting a $500,000 to $700,000 justification report he's offering to pay for as he seeks approval for the interchange. However, state Department of Transportation officials say the process could take a year or more.

Vruwink wondered what would happen if the city annexed a chunk of land that could effectively double the city's footprint, only to have state or federal highway authorities deny an interchange.

“If the interchange doesn't happen, what kind of buildings do you get out there? We'd have an area that might cost us additional staff and equipment that we might not be able to pay for,” Vruwink said.

Watson said he already has spent about $50,000 for planning, including parts of an Interstate justification report, and is offering to pay the cost of an interchange, which he says could total $15 million.

Watson and city officials have met with state DOT officials on Watson's proposal for an interchange. He told Vruwink he's seeking annexation as further proof to the state and companies that the project is viable and potentially could be fast-tracked by a municipality for zoning approval.

“If you guys have set out all regulations on what I'll have to follow ahead of time and get it shovel ready so everyone can make commitments to spend our money, we'll get it built,” Watson said.

Watson added that if the land sat undeveloped, it would still generate tax revenue, and he's not asking for Tax Incremental Financing for infrastructure work in advance of properties being developed.

Under law, if the city annexed the land, the towns of Milton and Fulton would get a portion of tax revenues for five years.

Council member Anissa Welch told Watson she wanted assurance that the corridor Watson seeks to develop wouldn't become populated by fast food chains and gas stations, and that industries in the proposed development would offer family-supporting wages.

Vruwink told Watson he'd like the towns of Milton and Fulton and the city of Milton to have a three-way meeting to discuss Watson's plans and give residents in the towns a chance to respond.

Some residents have voiced concern that Watson would use industrial zoning to develop gravel pits in the annexation area, although Watson has told The Gazette he has no immediate interest in mining gravel there.

Vruwink told The Gazette during a break at Tuesday's meeting that he'd push for a developer's agreement with Watson that would bar any gravel pits.

Meanwhile, the city council voted to forge an agreement that would make Watson responsible for annexation costs and legal fees, which could cost $50,000 to $75,000, according to city estimates.

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