Filling Up Fashionable Franklin

As seen in Detroit Free Press

Monday, November 18, 1996 With 1,012 households, the village of Franklin is too small to hold all the people who claim they live there. Detroit financier Max Fisher is among hundreds of people who live next door in Farmington Hills, but enjoy sharing Franklin’s zip code by using the prestigious little spot as their home address. It’s too small at 3-1/2 square miles to hold the Franklin Hills Country Club. That’s also in Farmington Hills. The Franklin Racquet Club is actually in Southfield. Even the famous Franklin Cider Mill is not really in Franklin.

It’s a couple hundred feet north of the border in Bloomfield Township. Now 171 years old, Franklin has kept itself small and exclusive while massive Oakland County suburbs mushroomed around it – Southfield, Farmington Hills, and Bloomfield Township. For decades, the historic village has fought off developers by electing the area’s fussiest town fathers and mothers and steadfastly refusing 20th Century plumbing. So, although the village holds some spectacular multi-million-dollar houses by such master architects as Irving Tobocman and Don Paul Young, living in Franklin has always meant pumping your water from a well and flushing your sewage to a septic tank. If that turned off mini mall and condo developers, it sat just fine with Franklin.

Now, “The Town Time Forgot,” as the 1825 village calls itself, is about to enter the next phase of its development. Last summer, Franklin got sewer lines – which made the last unbuildable land buildable. It’s about to be built upon. YOUNG BUILDER BUILDS FRANKLIN Somewhere between 60 and 80 building sites – even village officials aren’t sure how many – finally will have new houses on them, and Franklin’s 1,677-acres will be declared full. The lion’s share of this project is being done by Andrew Milia, 35, who bought his first Franklin lot when he was 27 and has developed 65 lots in the town so far-which probably makes him Franklin’s biggest developer. Milia was a young man at a commercial real estate firm when he bought a house for himself in Franklin.

He liked the area and started buying single, empty lots around his own subdivision as a private investment. In 1988, when the new sewer began to look inevitable, he bought blocks of land – mostly in the clay fields south of 13 Mile Road. This had been unbuildable before, because the clay couldn’t accommodate a septic tank. But with a municipal sewer system, the land would become hot property – as it now is. The new houses there will sell for $500,000 to $1 million. Each home owner’s share of the available land will measure more than an acre, but there won’t be that much grass to mow. Franklin treasures its natural woods and meadows. So Milia and the village agreed to a land use – site condominiums – that pushes the houses closer together and leaves more of the woods untouched. One other firm has a large (by Franklin standards) project now that the sewer makes it possible. Gerry and Robert Brody of the Brody Group will be constructing 15 houses on 18-acres, also on the south end of town, in a subdivision they call Stonegate. VILLAGE REQUIRES REVIEWS Building in Franklin takes a very long time, and Milia and Gerry Brody have been willing to spend it. Other communities have a two-step process. In Franklin, Milia said, the review has seven steps.

“In the last two years, I’ve been at the village council meeting 22 out of the 24 months.” What does Franklin want? It wants few buildings breaking up the natural features for which it is famous – including the Rouge River and some stunning rocky ravines. “The topography is outstanding here,” said Sue Davis who chairs the village planning commission. “Everything from the hills to the ravines, the wetlands, the trees, the vegetation, the river, the historic districts.” “Franklin even has 22 horse barns,” she said. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments has data showing that Franklin and nearby Bingham Farms are the least densely populated communities in the tri-county area – with fewer than one household per acre. With fewer than 100 new houses in this last development surge, that is not going to change.

Milia’s newest subdivision will be called Franklin Forest – south of 13 Mile Road, about a quarter-mile west of Telegraph. He proposed 25 houses on its 25-acres, but the village asked him to cut that to 21. With lots worth about $120,000 each, “that was a significant concession,” he said. Other concessions Franklin planners asked for and got were an easement that left land open for a future road, an extra 25-foot buffer zone near wetlands and detailed landscaping plans. “I have respect for the job they have to do,” Milia said. “It’s one of the reasons it’s such a desirable area.” Milia has learned the advantages of strict controls.

At first, he feared putting too many deed restrictions on the land he sold. But now he has learned that deed restrictions – on landscaping, architecture, house size and outdoor lighting – are a selling tool in upscale neighborhoods. “Residents like to know a neighbor can’t do something that hurts the property,” he said. Milia has worked on three other Franklin projects:
* Franklin Farms has nine building lots on 15-acres off Telegraph Road. Locally, it’s known as the land with the red barn, which he has preserved.
* Franklin Woods has seven lots on about 5-acres, south of 13 Mile Road.
* A subdivision called the Hellman Woods has 20 lots on 20-acres he added to existing development.

As developer, Milia buys the land and walks the project through the Village Council, working with civil and soil engineers, bankers and others to prepare the site for building. Then he hands off the land to Hometowne Building Co. or Countryside Living or to individual buyers. This private business is called Franklin Property Corp. On Stonegate, the Brody Group will be developer and builder.

FRANKLIN – QUAINT TO GRAND When they are done, the Brody and Milia projects will join Franklin’s eclectic mix of houses. The historic village center holds tightly packed little buildings from the 1800s, wearing plaques proclaiming their construction date. The village office, for example, is the 1836 farmhouse known as the Broughton house. Broughton descendants still live in the town. Near this, the “estate” sections have one-to-five-acre lots and some spectacular houses, including many one-of-a-kind contemporary houses by top architects. Still other houses are typical of those built by well-off people in the 1940s and ’50s – large colonial or ranch style houses. And woven in among these are a few quite ordinary small houses.

With Franklin just about out of land, some of the longtime residents are annoyed by a new practice – tearing down houses on estate lots. “Wealthy people spent $300,000 to $400,000 for the location of their choice and simply tear the house down,” said Camina Tuksal, an unofficial village historian. “I’ve seen it 15 or 20 times in the last five years. “That is not preserving the character of the village. Demolition is an oxymoron with preservation.” With land about gone, what’s next for Franklin? Planning head Sue Davis said the village needs a woodland ordinance to “enforce preservation of our historic trees.” “We want people to recognize that there are very important trees here,” she said. “Some are a couple hundred years old.” And who knows, once the land is really full and there’s no more threat from strip malls or condos, Franklin could pipe in the final luxury – city water.