October 13, 2004

Determining New Castle County government's proper role in dealing with the havoc wreaked by major storms looms as the first big issue to face the new administration and expanded County Council. It is likely to be as contentious as it is costly.

That was made clear as Council members tried to digest a memorandum listing four alternatives for responding to flooding and the structural damage it caused in Glendale II following the rains which hit New Castle County in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in September. Estimated costs of the proposals range from $1.5 million to $3.9 million, not including what it would cost to relocate the people who have been affected.

And it would appear that the small community near Bear is only the proverbial tip of a very large iceberg. "There are probably 15 or 20 [similar] situations that may involve one or more houses," Jeffrey Bross, a principal in Duffield Associates, told Council's finance committee.

"We're beginning what is going to be a difficult and long process ... that's going to cost millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars, that was not expected," said Council president Christopher Coons. "The threat to [the county's] fiscal health is going to be significant."

Assistant county engineer Richard Baccino told a meeting of Council's finance committee on Oct. 12 that Duffield, a geological sciences consulting firm, was hired to evaluate the Glendale II situation, which was deemed to be an emergency after stormwater undermined the basements of two seven-unit townhouse structures. He did not offer an explanation of why that took priority over what had happened in other communities.

"When are we going to [deal with] the whole thing?" Councilman William Tansey asked rhetorically. "There are plenty of people in my [Council] district who were hurt. I need aid too."

"It's all over the county. We have to have a systemized approach," said Councilwoman Karen Venezky.

There seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement during the committee discussion that public perception would hold that a precedent was set when the Gordon administration proposed and Council agreed to the county putting up $15 million as part of a joint county-state buy out of most residents of Glenville whose houses were severely damaged by flooding during a September, 2003, storm. However, participants on both sides of the podium during the committee meeting drew what they said was a distinction between the two situations.

Glenville's flooding was caused by the unleashing of water in the Red Clay Creek while Glendale II apparently was the victim of failure of a drainage system installed during a Pulaski Highway improvements project to handle runoff, combined with original construction which allegedly did not comply with the county building code and alleged unapproved enlargement of a nearby parking lot.

There is no geographic proximity or other connection between Glenville and Glendale II.

"We can blame [flooding] on [development decisions] in Pennsylvania, but some of the blame has to go to New Castle County," said Councilwoman Patty Powell. In Glendale II case, "we had a big rain event and the drainage system didn't work," said Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use.

Bross said the apparent shortcomings which made Glendale II vulnerable "couldn't occur today." He said that Land Use's enforcement of codes and floodplain protections in the Unified Development Code are totally different from what they were 20 to 25 years ago.

The principal concern among the Council members, however, lie not so much in fixing blame as in paying for fixing the results.

The Glenville buyout came at a time when Delaware Department of Transportation was looking to acquire property to replace wetlands to be taken to allow widening of Interstate 95 through Churchmans Marsh. That made state money more readily available to match the county's contribution than it would have been otherwise. No such support is in prospect regarding financing a solution in Glendale II or elsewhere and the finance committee was told there is little or no enthusiasm among state legislators for making it available.

"The reason we were successful in Glenville was that we had state cooperation. Now it seems that someone has decided they (the state) are not going to be involved," Councilman Robert Woods said. He also questioned why federal money has not been forthcoming to assist, as had been anticipated, in the Glenville buyout or why it federal disaster aid is unavailable now. "I see money going to Florida because that is the will of the President and Congress. Why isn't some of it coming here?" Woods said.

Councilman Robert Weiner said that fundamental policy has to be determined. "We made some decisions about Glenville because of its uniqueness. ... Now we have to decide if we (county government) can become an insurer in the future for any disaster that may occur."

Linked to that, he added, is a determination of what Council thinks is appropriate when it comes to applying the present budget reserves. "If we didn't have a surplus we wouldn't be having this conversation," he said.

At the same time, Powell said, county government is caught in a dilemma. "We have people in dire straits. They have no place to live and they have no money [to repair damages]," she said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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