Dock removals halted after uproar from home owners

“Ten years of memories gone in a day,” said Bob Angle of Annapolis, Md.

For the last few weeks, residents along the Assawoman Canal have watched as their decades-old docks were removed piece by piece and the debris loaded onto a barge for disposal.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has removed approximately 10 docks located south of the Central Avenue canal crossing in Ocean View.

DNREC’s Division of Parks and Recreation owns the Assawoman Canal and is seeking to take firmer control of the waterway, pursuing a mission for boating access and wildlife safety set forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But people living adjacent to the canal are questioning the purpose of dismantling the docks and criticizing DNREC’s approach to the situation.

The Assawoman Canal links the Indian River Bay to the Assawoman Bay. It was dug in the 1890’s and was owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until transferred to DNREC’s Division of Parks and Recreation in 1990.

According to Parks and Recreation Director Charles Salkin, the dock structures were built on public park land that was never private property.

Along the canal, the Corps had a right-of-way that was 150 feet wide, encompassing the water and both sides. Yet, they leased much of that land to private individuals for improvements, such as dock construction or lawn extension and enhancement.

When DNREC decided to dredge the Assawoman Canal, they took a “much more aggressive posture to monitor and enforce encroachment and other property violations on state property,” according to an April 2009, letter.

The canal had not been dredged in decades, and heavy silt prevented ease of passage. Dredging would “maintain a minimum depth or water... to support recreational boating,” Salkin said.

After decades of proposals and legal delays, the dredging project itself took three years and was still subject to much debate.

Salkin explained that the Army Corps of Engineers granted DNREC a dredging permit with certain deed restrictions. Most notably, if dredging was to occur, then the canal, plus 20 feet of land on each side, were to remain primarily natural.

This means “no structures, no building, no docks … just natural buffer,” said Salkin.

According to Salkin, the Corps of Engineers cited safety, navigation and environmental concerns.

“They were concerned that the shoreline remains in as natural condition as possible for wildlife – particularly for vegetative cover, so there would not be erosion in the canal,” Salkin explained.

Additionally, some structures were built illegally, as some builders did not obtain leases from the state. Other docks had become dilapidated or were abandoned in the water.

“Ease of navigation was definitely an issue,” said Salkin, adding that private structures were “crimping access at points” in the canal, so removal was needed to “facilitate boat traffic.”

Thus, DNREC planned to remove all structures from the canal and the 20-foot buffer zones following the completion of dredging. That includes docks, pilings and stairways leading to the water.

In April 2009, the Division of Parks and Recreation sent a letter to canal-side property owners, which was designed to reintroduce the State as a “neighborly” presence. The letter notified them that the Army Corps of Engineers required removal of all waterfront structures by December 2009. It said property owners could resolve disputed encroachments directly with the Division, but encroachments discovered in the future could result in official legal action.

Several individuals partnered with Collins Park Homeowners Association to take action against the dock removals.

The HOA Vice President Bill Kroll sent a letter to DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara “on behalf of the residents of Collins Park, as well as the homeowners with property adjacent to the Assawoman Canal” in August 2009. The group requested he form a committee of citizens, elected officials and DNREC staff to examine the dock removal issue.

Citizens also met that month to discuss the situation with state Sen. George Bunting and Rep. Gerald Hocker, and county and town officials.

The Division of Parks and Recreation responded to Kroll in November 2009, instructing Park Superintendent Doug Long to “delay the removal of the docks in Collins Park until a meeting is held and the Division is given further direction from the Secretary’s Office.”

That meeting had not occurred by December 2010, when the much-delayed dredging was finally completed. However, dockside owners received another letter in mid-February, which said dock removal would begin immediately.

Some property owners were not in Delaware when their docks were removed last month, only discovering the loss later. Approximately 10 structures had been dismantled when workers reached Tom Fletcher’s house on Feb. 23.

In an effort to draw attention to the demolition and in hopes of putting a stop to them, citizens began contacting DNREC, state legislators and the Governor’s Office.

Fletcher said he attempted to stop the workers by showing them DNREC’s letter about a community meeting, but he was unsuccessful. Work only ceased when the Division of Parks and Recreation was inundated with requests to cease work.

According to Salkin, DNREC was unaware of the other families’ affiliation with Collins Point until after Fletcher’s dock removal began.

“We made an agreement with the vice president of the Collins Park Homeowners Association, Mr. Kroll. We assumed, when he wrote that, he meant the people who owned property in Collins Park,” Salkin said.

Jennifer and Ormil Savage disagree. “We paid the lawyer. Our feeling is that we are included in this.”

“[We] will meet and hear them out… and determine if there are alternatives to dock removal,” said Salkin this week.

In the course of responding to phone calls from the additional concerned parties, DNREC determined it was unsafe to leave a half-dismantled dock in the canal, Salkin said, so workers returned to finish removing Fletcher’s dock on the afternoon of Feb. 24.

Fletcher’s 35-year-old structure will be the final dock removal of the season.

When asked at what point in the dredging process the meeting with Collins Park would take place, Salkin admitted, “We weren’t sure what we were going to do. … We had to act. We told the people over a year ago that we would have a meeting.”

Now, the dock removal project will be suspended indefinitely until a future meeting occurs between O’Mara, Parks and Recreation staff and Collins Park representatives.

The remaining docks belong to Collins Park and two other families on the northern side of the Central Avenue crossing.

“Despite not taking out ours, they weren’t supposed to take out the ones they did,” said Jennifer Savage.

In an e-mail to the Governor’s Office, Kroll explained the citizens’ other main grievances.

Kroll argued that DNREC’s Declaration of Deed Restrictions from 2006 allows “outdoor recreation” structures, and that it and the Army Corps’ permit do not specifically demand dock removals.

Also, Collins Park is seeking an equal opportunity to operate as a public-access point, just like the Ocean View Marina, which is still operating under such a permit.

Meanwhile, the affected property holders are noting their losses in personal enjoyment and in property value that stemmed from the waterfront access, which they said was a key sales feature for many of the homes.

“It’s the value of the dock access,” Savage clarified. “It’s not our dock. It does belong to the state.”

“We clam, we crab, we fish and swim,” said Fletcher of his children and grandchildren. “[Waterfront access] is the only reason I bought the house.”

Fletcher also estimated the value of his dock, equipped with running water and electricity, at approximately $20,000.

Salkin disagreed about whether the dock removals will prevent people from using the canal.

“I think people who are inclined to use it will use it,” he said.

Considering themselves to be “stewards” of the Assawoman Canal, the residents say they have always watched over the waterway. That includes helping mariners in distress, removing trash and other debris, and reporting incidents to the state police, who are not able to monitor the canal at all times.

Canal residents also assert that their docks help stabilize the banks and prevent boats from speeding excessively and leaving a large wake, which also leads to erosion.

Finally, the group noted that DNREC exceeded the allowed time period for work in the waters of the canal, which is supposed to occur only from September to December of each year. Salkin agreed that this is the typical time period for such work, but said the Corps of Engineers granted DNREC a permit extension specifically for the water work.

The general frustration also stems from shifting positions on DNREC’s part.

Until the letters actually arrived, the Collins Park group said that DNREC officials never gave indication of dock removals in years past. They had hoped to be protected under a grandfather clause as the State strengthened its claim on the canal.

“I think anyone that had access to something for so many years would feel legitimately distressed,” Savage said. “We’re trying to keep emotions out of this, but that’s a little harsh from the state we live in.”

Hocker was one of the legislators who expressed displeasure with DNREC conduct.

“I’m upset the way DNREC handled it, and I’m not surprised,” Hocker said. “[DNREC is] paid for with taxpayer dollars. To deal with the public the way they have on this issue,” he said, is dissatisfying.

If Delaware were to develop new standards for canal structures, at least some of the property owners would be willing to pay to bring their docks up to approved specifications and obtain new leases.

“We’re not trying to argue with the state,” said Savage. “We think that, whether it’s about the docks or the dredging … we need to continue to have the right to oppose State agencies about their decisions.

So far, no official legal action has been taken.

“All we’re asking for from the state is to review the documents. We would like an interpretation by a judge or mediator,” she concluded.

Before any further dock decisions can be made, “What’s important is that we have a meeting first,” Kroll said.