News

January 12, 2005

Unanimity in crafting and enacting legislation to aid some flooding victims and to undertake several short-term drainage and flood-control projects was cited as evidence that doubling the size of County Council was a good move.

"Expansion of County Council proved to be a very wise and good thing for New Castle County, said John Cartier, who was elected in November to one of the six seats established by splitting the six former districts.

"It shows civic-minded people that we're out to serve the people. That's the reason Governor [Ruth Ann] Minner vetoed the bill," said Timothy Sheldon, another newcomer. He was referring to the governor's having vetoed a measure which would have rescinded the expansion.

They commented as Council on Jan. 11 prepared to vote on an ordinance and companion resolution

to redirect up to $17 million of already authorized capital-project money to 30 projects. What started out as a potentially highly controversial proposal was approved unanimously with only a faint hint of debate.

Sheldon was primary sponsor of the measures, but by the time it came to vote nine of his colleagues had signed on as co-sponsors.

County Executive Christopher Coons signed the measure into law on Jan.12. He said that the first three debris-removal projects it will finance will begin immediately as will the process for buying up to 15 houses rendered unsafe by flood damage.

Council president Paul Clark said the path to that point "has been very much a cooperative effort." Not only Council but also Coons and former County Executive Tom Gordon, the Departments of Special Services and Land Use

County Executive Christopher Coons signs the flood mitigation ordinance. It was the first piece of legislation to reach his desk after taking office. Councilman Timothy Sheldon, right, was its primary sponsor.

 and several state legislators and agencies share the credit, he added.

With passage of a third version of Sheldon's ordinance a foregone conclusion after the second version was tabled in December for further tweaking, the only hurdle was to assuage objectors to drawing down $10 million of the money budgeted for acquisition of parkland.

The ordinance's preamble states that Council intends to restore that authorization in the fiscal year 2006 capital budget it will approve in the spring, but its text notes that the money might not be available to spend until fiscal 2007. Council members Karen Venezky and Robert Weiner pledged that they will work for prompt restoration of the authorization.

Clark said that there were no plans to spend any of the $10 million in this fiscal year and that the county's parkland acquisition fund still holds $1 million. If an unforeseen opportunity to buy a property arises, "we still have enough money for a down payment," he said.

After Eileen Butler, of Delaware Nature Society, complained during the public comment portion of the Council session that there was "no specific source of replenishment" stated in the ordinance and Gail Van Gilder, of Delaware Greenways, testified that "open space should be part of flood prevention," Clark responded, "Give us a hair of credit. ... New Castle County policy has been favorable to open-space preservation." He cited in particular recent inclusion in the Unified Development Code of a provision that at least half the acreage in new major residential developments has to be left open.

William Ruth, who said his house in Marshallton sustained $78,000 worth of flood damage, testified that there should be no question about whether parkland or protection against flooding should hold priority. Heather Klebon, whose house in Newkirk Estates apparently would qualify to be bought out, said her young daughter "can't play on a playground" because of illness she attributed to the flooding.

"I don't think it has to be one thing or the other," Clark said.

Michael Harmer, of Special Services, told a committee meeting preceding the Council session, that the county will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency of at least part of the money it spends on buy-outs. Applicants to have their houses bought must meet the same criteria the federal agency requires. The county will seek a federal grant, but he told Delaforum that the buy-outs will not be dependent upon receiving federal money.

The ordinance lists properties in Glendale and Newkirk Estates as "potential" buy-outs but also provides for buy-outs in other places if the properties meet eligibility criteria and sufficient money is available. Council's special services committee would have to confirm those buy-outs. All Council committee are committees of the whole so, presumably, at least seven members would have to concur.

Key new provisions in the previously reported ordinance establish the buy-out price as appraised value before flooding; prohibit anyone who rejects a purchase offer from later applying for a buy-out; and disqualify for a buy-out any property on which flood insurance was dropped or which was purchased speculatively at below market value. "The goal of this program is to ensure [that] no unjust enrichment occurs in this buy-out process," the ordinance states.

Since the 30 projects were divided into four categories, several have been moved from the listing of those for which financing participation was being sought to the listing of those for which it has been obtained.

As the categories now stand, with shifting still possible, they are: Debris removal and drainage pond repairs for which the county is legally responsible, $3,150,000; buy-outs, $4,850,000; projects for which support financing has been obtained, $5,925,000; and projects with no financing assistance, $1,625,000. There is no requirement that all the money that is authorized be spent.

A letter from state Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward that was circulated among Council members offers in-kind services of his department's personnel in effecting the buy-outs. In it, Hayward said the department does not have money available to offer financial assistance.

Councilman William Tansey noted that five of the 30 listed projects involve studies. "Why are we wasting time on studies that are just going to tell us there is a lot of water?" he asked rhetorically.

2005. All rights reserved.

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