December 6, 2004

Even though County Council is expected to approve spending up to $17 million for "a stormwater mitigation project to address drainage emergencies caused by recent storms" before the turn of the year, officials say that will not make much of a dent in what is generally accepted to be the county's most pressing problem.

"We're just throwing money at the problem now; we're not going after the causes," said Joseph Freebery, general manager of the Department of Special Service. That is county government's public works agency.

Councilman Timothy Sheldon, who is sponsoring a proposed ordinance to provide financing, which also is backed by Council president Paul Clark, said the measure will cover the cost of 26 engineering and construction projects.

At the present time, he told Delaforum, no buyouts of private properties are involved, adding, however, that that could happen and money would be available if it is necessary to complete any of the projects.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled for introduction at Council's session on Dec. 7. If usual practice is followed, it will come up for a vote -- and, observers say, near-certain enactment on Dec. 21. Sheldon would not predict that saying that his is only one of 13 votes on Council. Seven will be needed to pass the measure.

As now drafted, the proposal would transfer $12 million in the current capital budget from "the parkland acquisition project" and $5 million from "the land acquisition project" and transfer those sums to "the storm mitigation project."

Sheldon said costs of the projects currently on the 'to-do' list total $12.9 million, but that is based on conservative estimates and his experience in construction tells him that the bottom line will be much closer to $17 million. That would certainly be true if property buyouts occur, he added.

Some of the communities on the list are: Glendale, Newkirk Estates, Hyde Park, Marshallton, Caravel Farms, Du Ross Heights and Hawthorne. One project would involve Matson Run, a stream in Brandywine Hundred.

"They all have to be done if the flooding is to be brought under control," Sheldon said.

Freebery declined a Delaforum request that he explain details of the projects, saying it would be "premature" to do so before presenting them to Council members. The draft of the proposed ordinance would seem to indicate there is a line in the current capital budget for stormwater mitigation, but the amount to be amended is listed as zero.

The draft also refers to the money as coming from "appropriations and bond authorizations." A planned sale of $80 million in county bonds has been put on hold pending the outcome of a taxpayers' suit now before Court of Chancery.

Without going into detail, Clark said at a meeting of leaders of area-wide civic groups on Dec. 2 that "no new money is being spent" and that the money being transferred had been intended for things that "we have determined can be deferred." Freebery would not say that they are.

Clark indicated  that he regards assisting people whose houses were severely damaged or destroyed in the aftermath of the September storm as a top priority. "I don't think we're going to let anybody drown," he said.

Residents of several communities have been pressuring county government to come to their aid. Following flooding in a September, 2003, storm, the county teamed with Delaware Department of Transportation to buy out the owners of houses that were destroyed in Glenville, a suburban community near Newport. Then and since, Council members and other county officials have been at pains to assure other constituents that their pains are not going unheeded.

At the civic groups meeting, extensive discussion indicated that whatever is in the immediate offing is not being regarded as a solution to what Kenneth Murphy, president of the Greater Hockessin Economic Development Association, said is far-and-away "the biggest single problem New Castle County has."

"It doesn't go away. ... It's going to take more than the county to take care of it," Freebery said with reference to the apparently growing movement toward having county government increase its role in stormwater management.

He said there are efforts underway to seek help from state agencies, but "we haven't had any resounding success yet."

Clark said state legislators, in particular, are conspicuous by their silence on the issue. While touring flood-damaged communities, he said, "I haven't seen many from the state out there with us." State Senator Karen Peterson, whose district was particularly hard hit by flooding, has been at least one notable exception to that.

Freebery said that he would favor "an authority that is going to look at this (stormwater matters) with a single focus." That would indicate his support for establishment of a stormwater management authority. Such a move is being advocated by the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, which reportedly has hired a consultant to look into the feasibility of doing so.

Besides providing oversight to stormwater management, a dedicated authority also "would have the clout" necessary to deal with related interjurisdictional matters, particularly with neighboring Chester County, Pa., from which the creeks carrying a relatively large amount of water into New Castle flow.

During a brief appearance at the civic groups meeting meeting, County Executive Tom Gordon said the ultimate solution lies with controlling the various waterways which empty into the Christina River. "These creeks are out of control. [Fixing that] is going to take years," he said. He specified, in particular, Red Clay, White Clay and Mill Creeks.

Removal of obstacles which impede the regular flow of water in the creeks would go a long way toward helping alleviate the immediate threat, he said. The Glenville situation was the result of several small dames and other obstacles giving way and suddenly releasing a miniature tidal wave to sweep downstream.

According to Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, there are an estimated 2,500 houses in the 100-year floodplain in the county. While the Unified Development Code and enhanced enforcement of land-use standards has that under control looking to the future, he pointed out that existing housing stock -- almost all of which goes back to the mid-1970s and earlier -- is in potential jeopardy, he said.

The floodplain reference is to areas considered apt to be flooded by rainstorms with intensities considered likely with 1% of all storms. It has become almost cliché to say that so-called '100-year storms' now occur once or twice every year.

Clark said he is amazed by "the number of people who move into [an area] after a flood [there]."

Norman Specter, of the land-use department, said that stormwater drainage ponds installed to control sudden increases in stormwater are being widely neglected. There are about 650 of those in the county, of which about 400 are intended to protect residential communities. County inspectors have determined that 253 of the latter are in current need of repair, with problems ranging up to and including complete failure.

The problems, he said, is that community-supported maintenance organizations are either non-existent to inactive for lack of volunteers to run them. In some cases, developers never turned over the properties to associations. Only 253 maintenance organizations are registered with the county, which assists in the cost of repairs only for registered organizations. Registration is voluntary.

All of that, Baker said, that is the result of 25 years of neglect of the drainage pond approach to stormwater management. With new developments, various forms of natural drainage are being used instead of ponds.

Nevertheless, Freebery pointed out, the existing ponds, which in most cases cannot be replaced, are a critical first step to controlling what happens to rain falling upon impervious surfaces.

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