Last week, the Ocean View Town Council held a workshop to discuss drainage issues, including the development of requirements for maintenance of ditches and how such work might be funded.
Matt Grabowski of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources explained to the council that a tax ditch is a governmental subdivision of the State of Delaware. He noted that the Delaware General Assembly enacted the 1951 Drainage Law to establish, finance and maintain drainage organizations. He said tax ditches are formed through a Superior Court petition and currently there are about 220 tax ditch organizations throughout the state, and five within the town of Ocean View.
“They’re mostly on the west side of town, as you get closer to the canal,” he explained. “They are mostly watershed-based.”
Grabowski said the tax assessment is based on the benefit the landowner will receive from the ditch.
“The easiest way to look at it is, if you have a mile of ditch and you live at the bottom, you don’t have as much ditch to maintain. So, your assessment is a little bit lower. If you’re at the top of the ditch, your water has the farthest to go. Those assessments are typically higher.”
He said that ditches are maintained by volunteers who live within the watershed, with three officers who oversee the maintenance of the ditch.
“It’s not maintained for beautification,” he said. “They’re mowing it every year or every other year. They’re mowing it for maintenance access, not beautification. If you’d like, you can mow it more.”
Resident Marie Waehler said that there are overgrown trees in the tax ditch behind her house that present a danger to surrounding properties. Grabowski suggested that Waehler contact the ditch’s manager to voice her concerns.
“Contact the tax ditch managers and mention to them that you’re concerned about the trees. Maybe he can spend some money and make that decision to get the trees out of there. If you wanted to remove debris above and beyond… you could certainly do that.”
“If you have a problem in your tax ditch, the people who are directly responsible for taking care of that problem are the people who run the tax ditch organization,” said Jim Lober of Kercher Engineering, the town’s engineering firm. “It’s not a Town responsibility. It’s not Matt’s responsibility. It’s the tax ditch’s responsibility, of which you are a member. So that’s where you should start.”
Town Manager Dianne Vogel asked if the tax ditch managers are overseen by anyone.
“Who oversees them? They answer to the taxables — those are the people who live within a certain tax ditch boundary… Generally, the input from the public is minimal, because there isn’t a lot of interest in most cases.” He added that those who have drainage issues in ditches that are not tax ditches are not overseen by DNREC.
Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader asked if DNREC has a proposal in the works for a routine maintenance schedule.
“DNREC is not working on any ordinance that is going to mandate maintenance or a maintenance schedule,” he said, adding that Senate Bill 64 “basically provides a list of recommendations that the County or other municipalities can adopt or not. It’s not a mandated ordinance.”
Town Administrative Official Charlie McMullen explained the ditch maintenance ordinance that is being put together as part of Senate Bill 64.
“What we started out trying to do was develop our ordinance for the Town of Ocean View. Then we learned the State was developing an ordinance, so we said, ‘Let’s ride on their ordinance as much as we can,’” said Mayor Gordon Wood.
“I’ve just learned, as we’ve all just learned, that this State product is not going to be a law — it’s going to be a list of possible laws that jurisdictions may or may not adopt. We’re going to have the State doing some work for us on what some of the things are we can do, and select which options the State comes up with. But we’re not going to have a state-mandated ordinance.”
Grabowski said the Town could request to have prison labor help tend to the town’s ditches; however, currently there is a long waiting list.
“The wait list is currently three years long, and you’re only going to get them one time,” he said. “It’s getting competitive for prison labor.”
He noted that newer communities have stormwater plans that have drainage easements recorded over the channels or swales.
“It would basically say whose responsibility it would be to maintain that. Typically, they put that back on the HOA.”
Bill Wichmann, a resident of The Cottages, said he’s concerned about an underground pipe from Woodland Avenue and Route 26.
“We can’t handle it now. How come it’s our problem in The Cottages, when it’s coming from Route 26?”
“The problem with Route 26 is we’ve addressed things with DelDOT in an attempt to deal with this additional runoff,” said McMullen. “While they are proposing a stormwater management pond on the corner of Woodland and Route 26, their overflow will go into the ditch that runs behind Caroline. We’ve addressed that with them, and they feel that, because they do not exceed the 10 percent limit that would require them to do some sort of maintenance, they are not required to do anything by law.”
Town Engineer Alan Kercher said that DelDOT designed the system to ensure that they would not exceed the 10 percent limit.
“They actually overrode their own regulations. Technically, they’re creating pressure in the piping system to back it up, to keep it from exceeding the 10 percent — even though, if I designed that system and DelDOT reviewed it, they would not allow me to do it,” said Kercher. “Those ditches from where the Route 26 pipes discharge absolutely need to be addressed, because there are issues there — serious issues.”
Grabowski said that his office has received numerous calls regarding that issue, and that the ditch has been added to a publically funded drainage improvement list. “It’s where politicians can throw money at it, trying to resolve the issue. That list is longer than the prisoner list. It’s probably 10 or 12 years away, but at least it’s on there, and at some point the State will investigate that issue.”
McMullen said that, with other drainage issues within the town, the Town itself has run into trouble getting easements from property owners.
In developing an ordinance, Kercher said, maintenance should absolutely be included.
“It’s a very important component,” he said, suggesting they start out with six-month visits and determine if a higher or lower frequency of visits is needed. “Try to look at the maintenance with criticality. There probably should be some ranking, with certain drainage systems that would be higher in priority.”
“There is no State source for a drainage maintenance fund. If we were to establish that kind of program… we have to fund it. Those monies have to come from our only source of revenue, and that’s our home owners. So we’ve got to be very careful about what we wish for, because we may get it,” said Councilman Bob Lawless, noting that with such a program a tax increase would be likely. “This is a really tough one.”
Kercher said that some municipalities have been able to gain some funding from their state legislators.
“One way or another, the burden is going to be borne by the property owners of the town,” said Schrader.
Resident Walter Curran asked the Town to take a step back and try to figure out the issue before looking at how to fund it.
“The ultimate outcome is the citizen is going to pay if the community mandates there must be maintenance. I, for one, would much prefer to minimize the role of government in doing anything, if they don’t have to do it,” Curran said.
The town council will continue drainage discussions during their January workshop.
“We’re starting a process. It’s not going to be easy,” said Wood. “The train has left the station on addressing drainage.’’