Millville council reluctantly accepts sidewalk maintenance

Millville could build new sidewalks with federal funding, but the town council recently had to put some skin in the game by promising to maintain the proposed sidewalks, which they’ll offer to do in exchange for the land.

Although the project is not set in stone, the council voted 3-2 (Joan Bennett and Robert Gordon opposed) on Feb. 11 to maintain all sidewalks installed with Federal Transportation Enhancement Program funds.

Millville was eligible for the federal funds about five years ago, but the question of maintenance was a deal-breaker then.

Many town codes require residents to maintain any sidewalks adjacent to their property, including shoveling snow, but when the Delaware Department of Transportation approached Millville landowners for rights-of-way, some did not want to be responsible, said Seth Thompson, town solicitor.

“Two residents would not give us an easement [because] they did not want to maintain it, due to age,” said Town Manager Debbie Botchie. “One held up everyone.”

“The goal is to entice people to donate rights-of-way,” Thompson said. Otherwise, the Town would be paying for land acquisition, and those property owners would definitely be shoveling their own walks, because they received compensation. Donating land is considered much more attractive if property owners don’t have to maintain the resulting sidewalks.

The enhancement funds are not related to the Route 26 Mainline project, but DelDOT has paid more for real estate than the actual construction cost of that project will be, and with that kind of land value established, Millville councilmembers rejected the idea of purchasing land for a sidewalks project — especially if they would risk having to resort to eminent domain (purchasing the land through a court order, against the owner’s wishes) to complete a whole street.

Gordon said he supported sidewalks but not the unequal maintenance burdens on property owners who agreed to sell the rights-of-way to the Town and thus weren’t party to a maintenance agreement.

Gordon said. “I’d be ticked if the Town assumes liability, and I’m shoveling and have a heart attack.”

“The individuals who have given their property got compensated. The individuals we’re talking about are donating,” Botchie emphasized.

Without a public works department, Millville would likely hire a contractor for sidewalk maintenance. And time has passed since Millville’s original project approval was delayed, so Bennett was concerned that Millville’s share of the project’s cost will have increased.

“I don’t feel confortable … going forward on this subject any longer if, in the first place, we don’t have a comfort level” about having funds available, she said, especially when research has already cost manpower and lawyer fees.

“They mentioned costs might have gone up, but not necessarily that percentage the Town pays,” Thompson noted. “DelDOT will adjust the scope of the project based on Town funds, like if the costs went up exponentially.”

“We budgeted $200,000 of Town money for our match,” Botchie said of the $600,000 project. DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt “explained to us that, once council was in agreement to go forward — nothing signed — they could give us more solid numbers. It’s all work in progress.”

The plans included a 5-foot-wide walkway along the east side of Cedar Drive, from Old School Lane to Route 26, as well as along Old Mill Road from Route 26 to the entrance of Creekside.

Plus, Food Lion would give up several parking spots to create a town square with benches, a clock and landscaping, at Old Mill Road, near the existing crosswalk.

“Cedar Drive is desperately needed,” Botchie said of sidewalks on the road leading from Giant toward Lord Baltimore Elementary School and the busy Central Avenue. Porous concrete sidewalks would actually improve the poor drainage there.

She said she hoped the Town communicates better with residents on the importance of a walkable community. DelDOT will also talk to homeowners, but only with the confirmation that the Town will maintain the sidewalks (or enforce maintenance required from property owners).

“I know DelDOT is looking for the Town to say we’re on board with it,” Gordon said. “Is there any way … to find out what kind of money we’re talking before moving forward?”

DelDOT will provide better numbers, Mayor Gerry Hocker said, “but they have to know the Town is willing to do maintenance.”

The Town can stop negotiations if they receive unreasonable numbers.

“Does Millville want a walkable community or not? If so, we can move forward and start doing research,” Botchie said.

Bennett broached the question of liability, expecting that the contractor would have insurance if the Town was implicated.

Botchie said Wilgus Associates would charge approximately $200 to $250 per sidewalk mile as an addition to the existing policy. Plus, the Town only hires subcontractors with insurance.

“Anytime you have liability, you have insurance, and that’s what insurance is for,” said Councilman Jon Subity. “There will always be an outlier.”

“We’re not the only town with sidewalks,” Bennett said. “I would hate to see us sidestep the whole issue” for a few snow days.

Gordon asked if someone could sue Millville for only maintaining some walkways.

“I think it’s a distinguishable difference,” Thompson said. “The property owner owns that land under the sidewalk.”

Councilman Harry Kent voted in favor, with the understanding that it wasn’t a final commitment.

“I don’t like to shovel, but when I bought my property, I knew I had to,” Kent said. “Condemnation would be obscenely costly. In the long term, for the community, I think it’s worth the aggravation or consideration right now.”

During the council discussion, there was some grumbling in the audience.

Resident Richard Shoobridge said he was “aggravated,” asking how many homes benefit from free maintenance when 400 Substation Road homes get no sidewalk.

“I don’t think my tax dollars should have to go to getting someone to shovel,” he said. “[People should] do what anyone else does: pay someone who’s young. I see no benefit for Millville By the Sea. You can’t walk [to town from there]. You’d get smushed. …What’s the benefit?”

“Safety,” Botchie said. “I don’t know if I’ll be alive [to see the finished product] but the whole purpose is safety.”

“Your taxes go to schools. Do you use that?” Hocker asked rhetorically.

People might not currently walk the roads because there is no sidewalk for them, noted Subity, who said he walks Route 26 regularly.

“We’re on an island” at Millville by the Sea, said Shoobridge, and the project “does not benefit people over there.”

“This is the community center of town and also [location of] Town Hall,” Subity said.

Resident Penny McCormick said new sidewalks have made some Ocean View roads almost too narrow to navigate.

“We’re not taking any road,” Botchie clarified. “That’s why we’re asking people to donate 5 or 6 feet.”

“This won’t be the last stop on the train for the council to look at the project,” Thompson said.

For the next step, Thompson said he would contact DelDOT, which would take on the logistics of obtaining rights-of-way.

In other news from the Feb. 11 Millville Town Council meeting:

• With some expenses increasing, the council unanimously approved a budget change for professional services, since engineer Kyle Gulbronson has done more work for Millville than anticipated. Plus, there are still more zoning amendments to write. They pulled the additional $7,500 from the existing carryover fund of $194,000.

• The council unanimously approved a reduction in a bond for Millville By the Sea’s Sand Dollar Village II project.

The next council meeting will be a workshop on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m.