November 17, 2004

Councilwoman Patty Powell suggested that New Castle County impose a moratorium on development until it can determine what to do about current stormwater problems and to prevent future ones.

"We're going to have to do something until we get this under control," she said.

She said she was reluctant to propose drastic measures, but said the issue is critical.  "People's houses are being destroyed and nobody wants to take care of them," she said.

Powell's idea received immediate endorsement at a meeting of Council's special services committee on Nov. 16 from Martha Dennison, chair of the land use committee of the influential Civic League for New Castle County. "Moratorium is being brought up to me more and more. ... A lot of people are serious about this," she said.

After state Senator Karen Peterson complained that no one seems willing to respond to the plight of constituents in her district southwest of Prices Corner whose homes were severely damaged during the September storms, Council president Paul Clark called for applying pressure on Delaware Department of Transportation to take responsibility for its role in causing some of the problems and come to the aid of their victims.

Peterson said one of the communities hit hard by flooding in September is Newkirk Estates, which she said had no drainage problems until DelDOT diverted White Clay Creek to permit widening of Harmony Road.

Several residents of that community are unable to return to their homes more than seven weeks after being flooded out, she said. In a comparable length of time in 2003, state and county officials agreed to buy out storm-damaged houses in Glenville. In that case, DelDOT will use land once occupied by the houses to comply with federal environmental requirements to replace wetland in the Churchmans Marsh area that will be taken to widen Interstate 95.

"If we can't make people safe in their homes, it's time to get them out of the way," Peterson said.

Powell said families in several other places are in similar straits and in need of immediate help.

"DelDOT is doing a whole lot to put a lot of communities under water. ... If they put the stormwater 12 feet off the road, they think that's handling stormwater," Councilman John Cartier said.

The state agency isn't alone in bearing guilt for flooding, Peterson said. "If the state screwed up on a lot of highway projects, the county screwed up too. [It] listened to experts who said they could make water run uphill."

The sharp exchange came as momentum builds toward officially considering establishment of a stormwater management utility. As Delaforum previously reported, the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control is backing that idea. Such a utility would consolidate in a single agency the broad array of responsibilities related to controlling what happens to rainwater when it falls upon a highly developed urban area.

Councilman William Tansey called the committee meeting to begin exploring how New Castle County might relate to or be involved with a utility He told Delaforum after the meeting that the issue stands to become the most prominent one facing the new county administration and the expanded County Council.

Charles Baker, general manager of the county Department of Land Use, told the committee that the natural resources department has agreed to finance a preliminary 'does it make sense here' study by A.M.E.C., an international consulting firm which has helped establish several of the utilities around the nation.

The standard model calls for them to be financed by fees levied on property owners, both residential and commercial, that are calculated on the basis of the amount of impervious paved surface on the property. A.M.E.C. contends that fees believed to be within the range of public acceptablity can generate a sufficient amount of revenue to go well beyond what tax-supported government departments can do.

Be that as it may, it is generally agreed that New Castle County would face a staggering financial obligation were it to take on full responsibility for stormwater management within its jurisdiction.

A list of 18 drainage and flood abatement projects said to require immediate attention which was presented at the committee meeting carried a $12.4 million pricetag with another $500,000 estimated to be required for relatively small miscellaneous projects. Special services official Michael Harmer said the list is neither comprehensive nor meant to represent a plan for proceeding with remedial work.

Joseph Freebery, general manager of the Special Services Department, sidestepped making any estimate of the overall costs the county is facing should it decide to expand beyond its present statutory obligation to maintain its portion of the stormwater sewer system and to "keep open and free-flowing" non-tidal streams.

Pressed on the point, he said stormwater management could easily match "the $40 million we spend on our [sanitary] sewer system." The department's operating budget for sewer work this year is just over $41 million.

"This thing is going to be a big thing if you're going to do it and do it right," Freebery said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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