Help coming for private roads in need of improvement

Sussex County is ready to put its monetary muscle behind efforts to improve streets in the county’s private communities. County council members voted 5-0 on July 21 to approve an ordinance that codifies the county’s previously implemented program to aid street and roadway improvements for existing private developments.

Assistant County Attorney Vincent G. Robertson explained, “Previously, it had jumped back and forth between the state and county, and it was cumbersome. This is not a new program,” he emphasized. “It just formally establishes it.”

Robertson said he expects the program, which will help the private communities by offering long-term financing for the roadway improvements, to be popular.

“There are quite a few existing developments that would like to avail themselves of this,” he told council members prior to the July 21 public hearing on the ordinance.

Some communities in the area have complained about the poor state of roads built by developers, while others have taken issue with how roads have weathered after developers have turned them over to the community. The county program is aimed at helping property owners who own their own roads bring them up to acceptable standards.

In order to qualify for the program, a community would have to have at least five property owners, 500 linear feet of roadway with direct access onto a Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) road system and a legally established home owners, property owners or condominium association, as well as having the project deemed “economically feasible,” based on its costs and benefits.

Robertson noted that there had been some concerns expressed about the requirement for a legally established HOA, since that can involve legal costs and extensive community organizing for those who don’t already have a legally established association, “But we need to have some method to make sure [the road] is maintained.” HOAs would be held accountable for that maintenance once the projects are complete.

The application process for the program starts with the submission of a petition from the community to the county. Property owners would then vote in a referendum on whether or not to participate, with each property – or each buildable lot, if a parcel contains more than one buildable lot – allotted one vote. If the majority favors participating, the application would go to a public hearing and council vote on final approval for participation in the program.

As approved by the council on July 21, the ordinance calls for the property owners in an approved project area to be assessed a portion of the cost of the improvements based on the front footage of their properties, with a minimum charge based on at least 40 feet of front footage and a maximum charge based on no more than 100 feet of front footage. That cost would be repaid by the property owners over 10 to 15 years.

However, the council was not entirely sold on how the ordinance would assess those costs.

Councilman Michael Vincent (R-1st) said, “I’m not sure I understand the rationale in setting a limit of 100 feet. If someone has more, why shouldn’t they pay for it?”

Councilman George Cole (R-4th) said he favored a different method of assessing the costs – one in which individual property owners would be assessed a flat rate per lot, with the total cost divided by the number of lots.

“I support unit pricing,” said Cole, “but I know we would have to amend the ordinance and start over. How would we change it to address unit pricing?” he asked Robertson.

Robertson said the process to change the program to unit pricing after its approval on July 21 would require an ordinance amendment, which would mean advertising the issue for another public hearing, before a council vote. That would be a relatively simple change, though, if the council favors it.

“The front footage charges are not equitable and may hit people in the same neighborhood differently,” Cole argued, specifically pointing to differences between a property owner on a cul-de-sac, who is likely to pay more on a front-footage basis than a neighbor.

“We’ve done a lot of public hearings on these issues,” put in County Engineer Mike Izzo, “and those are the biggest complaints we get. The other residents generally support this point of view.”

Cole said in prior meetings that he also favors “uniform pricing” for county sewer projects, to better equalize what those connecting to county sewer will pay for doing so.

Communities already lining up to participate

Representatives of a number of private communities stepped forward on July 21 to praise the program and declare their desire to participate, but also to express some concerns about the details of the ordinance.

Rocco Lanno, one of the members of the board of directors of Plantation Park and president of the board of Plantation Park II, said his past experience had shown him the value of such a program.

“I’ve been trying to see if we can get the roads in Plantation Park paved,” he said. “I found it was just about impossible for the lot owners to come forth with the monies.”

Lanno said the community, in seeking to have the job done on its own, had been given an estimate of $425,000 to pave the community’s roads – about $1,500 per lot owner – all due in one lump sum at the start of the project.

“It’s kind of hard for these people to come up with $1,500, because the majority of them live on a fixed income,” he emphasized. “I was hoping to get a proposal of what it would cost, so I could present it to our membership.”

Having community streets upgraded and repaired isn’t just a matter of a smooth ride home, Lanno pointed out.

“We have 3.5 miles of crush-and-run stone,” he said. “People can’t leave their windows open. It’s really unhealthy. It’s the biggest complaint in our community.”

Complications of not having a paved street can extend beyond the dust and dirt of gravel and dirt roadways, according to Hugh Dolan of the Birdhaven subdivision in Millville.

“I’m here on behalf of the lot owners in a small subdivision that has sewer nearby, but we can’t access the sewer because the road is not paved,” he explained.

Dolan said paving his street would cost about $60,000, but that putting that amount of money together from the property owners didn’t work, even when he offered to pay half of the cost himself.

The Birdhaven issue is even more complicated, because there is no HOA or home owner ownership of the roads, as required under the ordinance.

“Most HOAs will have to hire a lawyer to form a corporation and then won’t maintain it,” he told the council. “We only have 12 lots. We didn’t buy the roads,” he added, saying the roads there still belong to the now-deceased developer and his estate.

“How do we address something like that?” he asked. “It doesn’t quite fit us,” he said of the ordinance, saying that the property owners would like to compel the estate of the deceased developer to pave the roads.

“Or have a public hearing, pave the road and assess us for the cost of paving the road,” he suggested. “The ordinance spreads the costs over everybody, but how do you deal with little subdivision like this?”

Cole said the county was unlikely to try to “compel” developers to participate in the program or to pave roads on their own.

“We’ve never compelled people to do things,” he said. “We have always hesitated to. There will still be private roads.” Of the requirement for an HOA, Cole added, “When we give [the improved roads] back to you, we have to ensure there is some mechanism for you all to take care of them. We want to bring you all together,” he said of encouraging cooperation between property owners and forming an HOA.

“The only way we’re going to get this sewer is if you let us pave the road,” Dolan concluded, saying the other alternative was to have the county approve sewer along an unpaved road.

Geri Buckley of the Salt Pond HOA spoke on July 21 representing, she said, owners of 536 town houses and single-family homes who share 6.5 miles of paved roads that are now 15 years old and counting.

“The developer put down the minimum of road work when he built it,” she said. “And two years ago, he turned it over to the HOA. We have not had the opportunity to build up our reserve funds, and it will cost $1.5 to $1.6 million to do the roads.”

Buckley also referred to the area’s number of residents who are retired, as well as the press of time to get such projects done.

“We have a number of home owners on fixed incomes,” she said. “And we have about one to two years of life left in our roads.”

Buckley said she supported the ordinance and that the HOA would be applying to participate in the program.

“If we have to assess our homeowners, I don’t know that we would be able to get this kind of money,” she said. “We have a very active HOA,” she assured the council. “We are incorporated and would be able to get the complete support of our homeowners.”

Jim Freeman is the president of the Bay Colony HOA, in Dagsboro, and spoke on July 21 representing the owners of 300 homes and 80 undeveloped lots. With several speakers ahead of him in expressing a desire to participate, his primary concern was whether the county will have enough funding to go around for all who want to participate.

“Assuming quite a few communities want to do this, will you be able to accommodate them? Will there be some sort of prioritization? There will be some who will be ready to go tomorrow,” he warned.

County Administrator David Baker referred to the process for the program, from petition, to referendum, to council approval, the bidding process and the financing process. That means it will take at least a little bit of time for communities to get to construction.

“I feel comfortable that we will be able to finance these projects,” Baker said, even if many of them come at once.

Baker also confirmed that the program won’t be a “one-time-only deal.” He said communities could come back to the county in 15 years – the typical lifespan of a road – and apply for help with financing repaving of the same roads, or they could choose to do projects in geographic phases and apply for another phase at a later time.

Izzo noted that communities choosing to have their roads completed to state standards, at a higher cost, had the option of either keeping those roads private once they are complete or could later apply to have the state assume responsibility for the roads.

He also said that none of the roads projects that have been part of the program to date have come back at substantially higher construction costs than the county’s own estimates.

“I can’t see the county awarding a bid that is 50 percent higher,” he said.

“Unless there was testimony [from the community] that you’ll take it,” Cole put in.

“Hotmix jobs are pretty standard,” Izzo emphasized. “There’s not a lot of variation other than the price of asphalt.”

The council voted 5-0 on July 21 to adopt the ordinance.