Sussex Drainage reaches emergency status

Joan Deaver proposes two new tax-ditch districts

By Ron MacArthur

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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.