Sussex Drainage reaches emergency status
Joan Deaver proposes two new tax-ditch districts
By Ron MacArthur
Cape Gazette. March 2, 2012
Memories of one of the wettest winters on record are still vivid in the minds of Cape Region residents and officials. During the winter of 2009-10, heavy rains and snow – including back-to-back blizzards in early February – combined to inundate the area with water.
Certain areas were hit harder than others: 50 acres of land were under water in the Hudson Road area near Lewes; artificial lakes were created around Long Neck and Oak Orchard; and many low-lying communities were flooded out.
Those memories were brought to the forefront during a tour of previously flooded areas hosted by Sen. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, and the Sussex Conservation District.
Sussex County Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford; Vice President Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown; and Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, took part in the tour along with county staff. New tax-ditch districts are proposed in some areas most prone to flooding.
The tour was not made public until it was over, and neither the public nor the press were invited to attend. Deaver said she was surprised at what she saw in some communities in her district.
She said she was taken to communities where flooding will probably occur with heavy rain or snow. “We saw an abandoned home that flooded because a neighbor built up their lot, thereby causing water to run off to the neighbor. That’s not illegal, I learned. There is no recourse except to go to court and then it is hard to prove,” she said.
“In one case they are pumping water from one community to another, to another and so on, but in case of a severe storm, they tell us that system will bubble up and fail,” she said. She said she saw some homes built on land that looks like a bowl where water is sure to gather.
“I was the only one on the tour that was upset about it. I made it clear that we are saying buyer beware, but no one responded. People just stared at me. No one said a word,” Deaver said.
The issue surfaced during the Feb. 28 county council meeting when Deaver asked what response she was supposed to give to residents when they complain to her about flooding in their communities.
“We don't have staff in that area,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “Refer them to the Sussex Conservation District, and if they are not doing the job, complain to state legislators. I feel their pain, but we can't do a thing for them.”
Vincent cut off the discussion during the council meeting, saying the item was not posted on the Feb. 28 agenda. Deaver said she wanted to continue the discussion as an agenda item on the Tuesday, March 20 agenda – council does not meet March 6 or March 13.
“We were told about communities that are going to flood,” Deaver said. “It's an emergency situation, and we need to look at a long-term plan. We need a presentation given to the public; we should all know what was said [on the tour].”
Gray areas cause confusion
The discussion picked up again during a Feb. 28 luncheon and presentation for county officials hosted by the Sussex Conservation District.
Conservation district staff and board members said problems could be alleviated if the county had a drainage ordinance like Kent and New Castle counties, had regulations for single-family lot grading and had a process for approving construction of basements, especially in low-lying areas or areas prone to flooding.
“There is a gap between jurisdictions and between county code inspectors and the conservation district,” said Jessica Watson, conservation district program manager. “We have developed lot-grading standards, but we need county buy-in for them to be successful.”
“If we can be proactive on the front end, we could avoid the phone calls and more expensive solutions. It's less costly to prevent problems,” said Brooks Cahall, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control manager. A tax-ditch district is being established in the Hudson Road area to deal with flood ing issues, which will benefit 350 properties, Cahall said.
Under the plan, swales, ditches and pipes will be installed to move water to a pond, a former borrow pit, where it would be monitored, and a water-control device would allow it to flow to Red Mill Pond. The cost of the project is estimated at $350,000, Cahall said. Money for construction could come from a variety of sources including the Bond Bill, a construction loan or 21st Century funds. Another tax-ditch district is being proposed for the Guinea Creek area near Long Neck. Property owners in the tax-ditch districts will elect a manger and officers and pay an annual fee to maintain the system with assistance from state and county matching funds. There are more than 2,000 miles of tax ditches in the state with more than 1,200 miles in Sussex County. More than 40 percent of the county is drained by tax ditches, said Debbie Absher, conservation district coordinator.