Route 26 project a hot topic

Local residents and businesspeople who had championed the addition of a third lane along the entire length of the planned Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project got their wishes in the proposal laid out by Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) project engineers Monday, May 9.

Indeed, with the exception of the Assawoman Canal bridge (off-limits for expansion due to the sensitive nature of the canal and wetlands) and the westernmost edge of the project area, the latest project concept shows a third lane comprising a series of shared turn lanes running along 20,000 feet of the highway — only 936 feet less than the entire project length.

The resulting additional width requirements over the previous plan (unveiled in November 2004) are expected, however, to be less than a triumph for some property owners who now stand to possibly lose additional feet of their properties and — in a dozen cases — entire properties, including homes and business locations.

That’s five more property owners targeted for possible “relocation,” above the seven properties considered under the November 2004 plan.

Among those unfortunate 12 property owners is Glen Quillen, whose home and business (Quillen’s Repair Shop) sit near the current shoulders of Route 26. In the case of the home, the proposed width increase for the highway would place the center lane somewhere in the vicinity of his living room.

Quillen took the news stoically, if not happily, at the May 9 public workshop held by DelDOT at Roxana Volunteer Fire Department’s fire hall.

“There’s nothing to do,” Quillen said. “They’re going to build it.”

Like Quillen, some other property owners said they perceive a growing sense of inevitability about the expanded project and its impact on their individual properties. But DelDOT project engineers were quick to emphasize that the proposed plan is far from set in concrete (literal or otherwise).

Indeed, Project Manager Tom Banez said the potential impact on all of the properties along the proposed widened Route 26 was initially determined by a basic template for the roadway — one which (as of May 9) had yet to be altered in an effort to minimize its impact.

“But that effort will be made,” Banez said adamantly. “It’s 12 now, but it could be two,” he added, noting that the need to relocate property owners because of the project could turn out to be minimal once the template is given over to a realistically engineered project plan.

In most cases, the properties targeted for possible relocation were strongly affected by efforts to protect historically significant homes that exist near them, according to Banez. One home on Route 26 is already listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, while more than 10 others were identified as historically significant by a recent survey.

Banez said the dividing line between those properties targeted for possible relocation and those where DelDOT would be taking only a portion of the land was a simple matter of structure location. Where the proposed roadway meets a structure, the property was marked for possible relocation.

“If there is even a foot or two between the house and the right of way,” Banez said, “they shouldn’t have to relocate.”

Relocation is a finite thing for those property owners who will be affected, according to DelDOT Public Relations Manager Darrel Cole, who was among those available to answer questions at the workshop Monday.

Cole said “relocated” property owners — whether two or 12 — will be compensated for the value of their property and will also be eligible for assistance in locating a similar dwelling or property, as well as in the actual move required. If the property owners aren’t able to locate a similar property, he said, the state could pay the difference between costs and the compensation.

Property owners being relocated will not be able to move the existing buildings on the property at state expense in order to remain there. But they will have the opportunity to negotiate with the state to ensure they get full and fair value when compensated by the state, Cole said, praising the efforts of the department’s real estate staff to “do the right thing.”

Cole noted that the proposed Route 26 project (as revised) is the first in the state’s history to have a proposed budget for right-of-way that exceeds the proposed construction budget.

With the changes from the November 2004 plan, the projected right-of-way costs increased $3.9 million, from $10.7 million to $14.6 million. Construction costs increased $1.9 million, from $11.1 million to $13 million. Those differences account for the planned increase of 13,850 feet in third-lane project area, from only 6,150 in the initial plan.

Cole emphasized that the new plan was a result of public input from the November 2004 workshop and since. “We heard. We listened,” he said.

Efforts had been made by some area residents and elements of the local business community to increase the number of turn lanes or, ideally, create a dedicated third, turn lane that could also possibly be used for additional outbound traffic in the case of an emergency evacuation.

Safety concerns and smoothing of traffic had been high on proponents’ lists of reasons why the change was needed.

Bethany Beach resident Steve Wode was vocal in his support for the change. (Wode also owns property in Ocean View and Millville, as well as sitting on Bethany’s planning commission and working with the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.) Upon viewing the plan Monday, Wode said the proposed changes could change the entire feel of the stretch of roadway.

“This is a street, not a highway,” Wode said, beaming over the vision of sidewalks in the so-called “closed” section of the project and wide shoulders for bicycle traffic. “People will walk instead of hopping in their cars,” he predicted. If that prediction is correct, the project could indeed produce the kind of reduced local traffic some proponents are seeking.

The revised plan was also a success in the eyes of Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh.

“I don’t think they could do any better,” he said. Despite being outside the project boundaries, some Bethany Beach property owners championed the revision, citing the difficulty of driving into and out of the town on Route 26 at times of high traffic.

While she was pleased with the overall result of the revisions, Chamber Executive Director Karen McGrath was also mindful of the impact of the plan on affected property owners, including some of the Chamber’s member businesses.

“Some businesspeople feel they were blindsided,” McGrath said Monday, while noting the Chamber’s efforts to encourage businesses lining Route 26 to keep informed throughout the process and continue to give their input.

She said some business owners had already expressed concern that they would lose business as a result of the wider roadway, due to reduced parking space in areas taken by the state for the project’s right of way.

But McGrath said DelDOT would be making efforts to assist those businesses, possibly mitigating the impact by working to obtain additional land for them at the rear or sides of their properties where such parking could be relocated.

Beyond that, McGrath said she felt the long-term affects on the area’s business community would prove to be substantially positive, with additional customers brought in by smoother traffic. Businesses in the Bethany portion of the Route 26 renovation (completed some years ago) had seen just such a benefit, she said, despite some opposition to that project when it was first proposed.

Cole confirmed that DelDOT would also be working with affected business property owners to create some form of mitigation, on a case-by-case basis and with individual attention.

In the meantime, emphasis was placed on the workshop’s function: to bring in comment and additional input so the plan for the roadway can be further adapted toward what Cole described as a “happy medium.”

In the end, the impact on individual property owners along Route 26 is being weighed against anticipated benefits for area residents, visitors and businesses if traffic flow and safety can be improved.

Rep. Gerald Hocker confined his comments from the workshop to its function. “It’s great that they’re having this meeting so people can learn about the plan before the acquisition phase starts,” he said. But again, Hocker emphasized the changeable nature of the proposal. “Nothing is set in concrete right now,” he added.

Hocker’s challenger in the November 2004 election, Shirley Price, also attended the workshop. But it held perhaps a more personal impact for her, as her home is one of those fronting Route 26 and standing to lose at least a few feet to the expanded roadway. In Price’s case, that’s some 10 feet and a few of the trees she said are her husband’s passion.

Like many of those affected by the proposal, Price displayed a touch of stoicism.

“Progress has a price,” she said. “We want smoother traffic.”

Despite that understanding, Price said she was worried about the impact on the individual property owners — especially some of the older folks who live on properties that would be substantially affected. Those property owners have established a way of life there, she said.

In Price’s own case, she noted her objections to the drainage swale that would be created at the edge of her front yard, as part of the “open” section of the project. (The project is divided into two sections: open and closed. Open sections — starting just west of Windmill Road/Road 352 — will include drainage swales, while the closed sections will include closed drainage with sidewalks.) The idea of possibly selling the property had even entered her mind, and that of her husband, she said.

Price is far from the only property owner facing the loss of some of their front yards.

Dorothy Thierault stands to lose at least 35 feet of depth across the front of her property in the Clarksville area. Weighing that idea, she asked Banez to give her a loose estimate of the possible financial compensation DelDOT would pay her.

In doing so, he emphasized that individual property valuations would be done, possibly moving compensation for individual property owners well off the $10 per square foot cost that was used as the right-of-way cost estimate for the project.

Thierault took in the information with a stoic expression.

“We know something has to be done,” she said. “I’m upset, but we know it has to be done.”

Thierault noted she didn’t blame Banez or the other DelDOT engineers for what might happen to her property. That she reserved for those allowing and supporting the area’s continued growth.

“We’d like to blame transportation, but it’s development,” she said. “It’s the builders, realtors, politicians… They should have known and done something with the infrastructure.

“Now is the time for people who haven’t benefited to pay,” she added. “The ones who will pay are not the ones who created this monster.”

Beyond the roadway, Thierault said she was also concerned about the continued impact of growth on area schools, but she had little hope things would change. “It’s just build, build, build, with no end in sight,” she said.

Cole said Thierault’s response to the plan was not uncommon. “It’s people like her who are being affected, but they understand the benefit to the community. It’s for the public good.”

Cole also noted that DelDOT had begun taking a much more proactive approach to infrastructure in recent years, already planning the purchase of right of way along Route 113 in anticipation of expansion projects that would be completed 10 to 15 years in the future. Would that such planning had been done a decade or more ago in the case of Route 26, he said.

Lacking that, DelDOT planners and area officials will have to weigh the potential for enhanced safety and traffic improvement against the impact the proposed project could have on those dozens of properties that front Route 26 as the process moves forward toward a possible 2008 construction start.

Comments and input will continue to be taken by the department in coming weeks.