December 9, 2004

County Executive-elect Christopher Coons strongly urged County Council not to provide financing for $17 million worth of stormwater projects, including buyouts of 17 residential properties damaged beyond repair by flooding in the aftermath of storms in September.

"We may do more damage than we should if we don't think this through," he warned in a strongly-worded appeal to defer what he called "a well-intentioned rush" to respond to cries from constituents in several communities southwest of Wilmington for county government to provide remedial action to remedy situations which contributed to the natural disaster and alleviate some of the financial hardship of its most severely affected victims.

If Council and the executive administration does so, Coons said, "we are expanding the scope of county responsibility dramatically [and will] open up a whole new range of commitments and raise expectations."

Council could vote at its Dec. 21 session on an ordinance which would transfer $17 million in the current capital budget into what it describes as "a stormwater mitigation project." The money previously had been earmarked for unspecified acquisitions of parkland and other land.

The latest draft of a list of "proposed drainage and flood abatement capital improvement projects" prepared by the Department of Special Services and dated Dec. 7, brings to 30 the number of individual projects. They include $3.9 million to buy and demolish seven townhouses in Glendale and replace them with a drainage pond, $2 million to buy and demolish seven houses in Newkirk Estates, and a $150,000 buyout of one property in Duross Heights.

Despite Coons's plea, Councilman Timothy Sheldon introduced the measure at the Dec. 7 session and indicated that he intends to bring it to a vote, as is customary with most ordinances, a fortnight after introduction. "One of the things I wanted to do is getting the county rolling," he said. Sheldon is one of eight new Council members.

As Delaforum previously reported, Council president Paul Clark, who is one of those newly elected, previously voiced strong support for Sheldon's initiative.

If Council were to enact the ordinance on Dec. 21, there would be time for outgoing County Executive Tom Gordon to sign it into law before Coons succeeds him on Jan. 4. Gordon reportedly is supportive of a buyout of the damaged properties that are listed and has advocated several flooding-control measures.

The next scheduled Council meeting will be Jan. 11 and it would be up to Coons to complete action on the measure if the ordinance were passed then. While observers believe it is doubtful he would want to veto a piece of major legislation at the beginning of his administration, they point out that putting the money in the right place in the capital budget is not the same thing as spending it and the executive is the ultimate authority with regard to timing of actions by county departments.

While only four of the 30 projects, which account for about 12% of the total cost, involve work that falls within county government's legal obligations, Joseph Freebery, general manager of the Department of Special Services, said that he regards the proposed ordinance as both providing money and "giving us a directive" to proceed with the projects on the list.

Crux of the issue discussed at a meeting of Council's special services committee on Dec. 7 -- prior to Sheldon's introducing the ordinance that evening -- was the matter of jurisdiction and resultant responsibility for pay for the work.

Clark said both he and Coons have been "having many conversations" in that regard with state officials, particularly legislators, Governor Ruth Ann Minner's staff and secretary of transportation Nathan Hayward.

"Every agency I have seen, other than us, takes two years to just think about it," Clark said.

"The best I can say right now is that folks are unwilling to say a flat 'no'," Coons said. If the county acts unilaterally, he said, "the others will sit on their hands ... and we'll be left holding the bag."

He said he thinks "a stormwater utility is an excellent idea." Establishing such an agency has been advocated by the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control and is now the object of a feasibility study. It would assume responsibility for stormwater management functions and have the authority to levy a fee to pay for them.

The county "should move forward now in partnership with state and other agencies, but move deliberately," he said, adding, "I don't see a crisis that compels us to act [hastily]."

Council's lawyer, Carol Dulin, said nine separate jurisdictions "have a potential role" in addressing the problem. "It's difficult to get a roomful of regulators to budge," Freebey said. "Is this an issue that New Castle County should take on itself?"

Delaware Department of Transportation is on the receiving end of finger-pointing. An oft-repeated putdown is that the powerful highway agency overstepped itself when it thought it could make water run uphill.

Ramesh Batta, whom the special services department hired to evaluate projects on the list, said it is "most likely" that a decision 30 years ago to divert White Clay Creek to reduce the number of bridges required to improve Harmony Road caused flooding in Newkirk Estates. Similarly, he listed drainage resulting from the widening of Pulaski Highway as a contributor to the problem in Glendale.

State Senator Karen Peterson objected to insinuations that state government has been derelict in meeting its responsibilities. She said the General Assembly agreed to provide $18 million to go along with the county's $15 million to finance the buyout of houses in Glenville destroyed by storms in September, 2003. "Nobody ever said we (state government) did anything to create that problem," she said. That buyout gave DelDOT land to replace -- albeit to an extent greater than required -- Churchmans Marsh wetland that will have to be taken for the planned widening of Interstate 95.

Peterson pointed out that the legislature has been out of session since before the September, 2004, and indicated that she, for one, intends to press the matter when it convenes in January. Meanwhile, she said, families displaced by the recent flooding are in dire circumstances. Some, she said, are carrying two mortgages while living with friends or relatives. One has been in a motel since the storm.

"If we can't help our people, we shouldn't be spending money on anything [else]," she said.

"When it rains, we don't sleep," Steve Klebon, a resident of Newkirk Estates, told the committee. "The next time we get a heavy rain and if it happens at night you're going to be burying people."

There is no lack of "heart-wrenching stories out there," Wayne Merritt, a special services senior manager, said. And, when word of the proposed ordinance gets around, "there will be other people coming forward." He said one claimant calculated that flooding had reduced the value of a recently-sold house by $50,000 and wanted to know if the county would make up the difference.

Batta told the committee that, in addition to those on the list, there is "a magnitude of [similar] problems in the county." The 30 projects that were selected are "things that can immediately be done with a reasonable amount of money," he said.

"How did this list of projects get put together?" Coons asked, saying that it is his understanding the projects that were evaluated were those called to the department's attention by Council members and other officials. He did not receive an answer.

Freebery has not responded to a Delaforum inquiry about what parkland and other projects will be deferred.

Although the general rule of thumb is that location within the so-called 100-year floodplain puts a property at risk, Bata said recent rainfall has resulted in "places that are in the floodplain that are not flooded and places that are not in the floodplain that are." Glendale is an example of the latter, he said.

By the same token, he said, a relatively minor rainfall can produce flooding if earlier storms have soaked the ground past its ability to absorb the additional water.

"That's the way nature works," he said.

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