South Bethany to make drainage improvements

South Bethany Town Council members, during a special meeting on June 23, voted to authorize the use of up to $15,000 in existing Municipal Street Aid funds to make improvements to street drainage in several flooding-prone areas of the town.

Town Manager Mel Cusick noted that most council members had received several e-mail complaints on the subject recently, centering primarily on particular areas of New Castle Drive, Elizabeth Way and Anchorage Drive.

“We get a lot of other complaints,” Cusick acknowledged. “These are the ones where the problem has no other avenue to drain. It’s coming out to the right-of-way, and in the town code, the town is responsible for the right-of-way.”

Cusick noted that the town code does require property owners to put swales on either side of their properties, to drain any stormwater to the street, at which point it becomes the town’s responsibility to manage drainage.

“The ones you see in front of you are the ones where the water is coming into the town right-of-way and we have to do something about it,” Cusick asserted, noting the potential for stormwater to freeze in the winter and damage the town’s paved roads if it is allowed to accumulate in the right-of-way areas.

Cusick emphasized the potential impact in response to concern expressed by some council members that the town might be taking on responsibilities that are more properly those of individual property owners.

Councilman Timothy Saxton urged caution and a review of the larger issue of drainage, even if it was determined that the town should use MSA funding to make some improvements.

“That’s where the money comes from, but we still need to look at the code as to owner responsibility,” Saxton said. “I believe we have to think about this in conjunction with where you’re putting the water – it may be a longer-term project – as well as property owner responsibility.

Mayor Gary Jayne acknowledged that there may be some areas where drainage issues need to be addressed with property owners.

“If it’s a problem that’s the property owner’s responsibility,” Jayne said of the town code and maintenance requirements, “we can deal with them on that.”

Cusick noted on June 23 that, while town officials had determined some of the recommended drainage improvements were things the town would have to deal with, other areas of flooding problems were specifically excluded from being the town’s responsibility.

“We get a lot of complaints about drainage at the back of properties,” he said. “That’s not the town’s responsibility. Our responsibility is the town right-of-way.”

Still, Saxton urged the council not to simply agree to make improvements without further examining the problem.

“It’s not on the road,” he pointed out. “It’s on the person’s property. But it may end up being our problem. They need to be done in conjunction, so we know it’s being done properly.

“I would like him to come back to the town council with a finding that it’s the town’s responsibility, not the home owner’s,” Saxton added of Cusick, urging the council to tackle the problem in a way that would deal with both problems at the same time.

Funding available for work

In recent years, South Bethany has accumulated $168,000 in MSA funding, which can be used for street work, drainage and paving. The funding has been targeted for eventual paving of Ocean Drive, so that the town wouldn’t have to put money from its stretched coffers into one of its most-used and most damage-prone roads.

With another $62,000 in MSA funds expected in the new fiscal year, that total would rise to about $230,000 in the bank. The town’s 2010 budget sets aside $10,000 for major street repair, as in the case of a major storm, and the most recent estimate for the paving of Ocean Drive was $185,000. The town has also targeted keeping $20,000 in reserves in the MSA account, just in case of a future need.

Those set-asides altogether would leave about $15,000 for drainage projects to be made with the MSA funds – the figure Cusick asked the council to approve spending under his direction. He said the town could even pave Ocean Drive as soon as next spring.

While the drainage projects wouldn’t normally be done during summer because of traffic concerns, Cusick said some of the proposed projects might be suitable for an earlier start, especially if the flooding problems are determined to be severe and traffic issues minimal.

His overriding message to the council was one of ongoing engagement on the issue of drainage.

“I would rather not see the town let all these accumulate as they did five years ago and have to budget $70,000 a year to get caught up,” Cusick said, pointing to a time when he said a lot of drainage issues had piled up and were then being done piecemeal, budgeting $50,000 to $70,000 per year.

Cusick said the town had since whittled that figure down to $15,000 to $20,000 each year.

“With budget cuts, we did not have any money this year,” he cautioned.

Target areas are persistent, pervasive problem

The areas on the proposed project list had been called in by property owners and have since been monitored by town officials, Cusick noted, and were determined to need resolution by the town.

“Some have been on the list since before we stopped spending money last year,” he noted, pointing out that some had been on the list for up to a year.

“Our policy is to check the drainage,” he said. “If it doesn’t leave within 24 hours, it’s deemed a problem. The ones on the list are severe. A lot are minor, and we tell people there’s nothing the town can do, we won’t spend money to deal with that problem.”

Cusick said even the more severe problems had been scrutinized as to their real impact.

“One looked like it might have been for one lot, but it affects six properties,” he said. “We won’t do it just for one lot at town expense. It has to affect more than one lot.”

Cusick said the fixes the town has employed in the past most often involve trying to take the stormwater to the town’s canals or an existing cache basin. He said that has taken care of most of the problems in the past.

The projects, he noted, are usually done one at a time. The town previously used to dig a trench along the right-of-way and fill it with stone. “That will work for a couple years,” he noted, adding that the town instead now uses a trench and perforated pipe covered with stone – a French drain system – to run the stormwater to an existing cache basin, which he said works much better than the previous method.

“Doing three or four a year, we have been able to keep caught up without spending a lot of money,” he emphasized.

Cusick said the usual costs for such improvements run about $3,500 for an area of three lots. The projects on the preliminary list – which was to be reexamined by town staff – could likely be completed for $15,000 or less.

MSA funding concerns push action sooner

Cusick on June 23 additionally cited concerns about the town continuing to save up MSA funding without near-future plans for its actual use.

“I would recommend we be careful, because of the dire straits of the State of Delaware, of how much we are keeping in the MSA accounts,” Cusick said. He said he was concerned that state officials could see the large balance being kept in the accounts and say the town has not been spending it and then not give the funding to the town in the future.

“Or you may want to hold off until know what the General Assembly does with MSA funding this year.”

But caution was the watchword on the issue for Councilman Jay Headman, despite those concerns.

“I feel this is not something we have to rush into now,” he said. “I don’t believe the MSA money is going to be taken from us. I would recommend we hold off and look at all of these, to see which are our responsibility and which not ours, and to look at other retrofit strategies.”

While supportive of the projects overall, Councilman John Fields also had some concerns.

“Some of these drainage problems, are they really the town’s problem or are they the home owner’s problem?” he asked Cusick.

“In some cases, if the owner fixes the lot, it will shift the problem to the neighbors,” Cusick replied.

“Unfortunately, this poor fellow is the lowest point,” added Saxton of one particular lot.

“When they build, they’re supposed to put in swales that take the water to the street, at which point the town is responsible,” Cusick reiterated.

But, for Headman, the issue isn’t just a question of who should be responsible for the drainage problems, it’s an issue of the larger strategy for the town as a whole.

“I’m looking for recommendations for taking care of the drainage. There’s the idea of no net runoff from a property,” he pointed out. “The town needs to relook at the ways in which drainage works. Should we be looking at other potential retrofit strategies instead of quickly draining it to the canal?”

Again, Cusick advised the council to take care of the urgent problems before it’s too late and town streets – and the council’s reputation with its constituents – suffer.

“If you let a problem like that lay, over the winter it will freeze and will tear your street up,” he said. “Will you keep putting these residents off while you keep looking for ways to solve the problem? It will generate a lot of heat if you do.”

Saxton joined Headman in expressing concerns about how the town will tackle the larger issues involved in the drainage problems.

“It’s a question of whether everyone’s doing what they need to do to keep up to code,” he said. “Is there an expectation in the code that they should be re-grading their land,” he asked, before the council considers action to be taken by the town.

“In these cases,” Cusick replied, “there’s no route for them to drain their water. Ideally, when the town was built, drain systems would have been put in.”

Fields was convinced of the immediate need for action.

“We should use the state money. Don’t let it sit there,” he said.

But Headman remained opposed. “Why the rush now? We need to look at the problem, identify the way we’re going to attack this. If there’s no other solution, then there’s no other solution.”

Jayne supported a middle way. “If we find them, we’ll use them. But we have a backlog, and we’ve been telling them ‘later, later, later…’”

“We have established the expectation that we’re going to do something,” added Councilman Robert Youngs.

“This is an alternative to using budget money,” Jayne emphasized, noting that property owners had already been told during this year’s budget discussions that the town didn’t have money in the budget to spend.

Councilwoman Diane Matera also supported the use of MSA funding, while recommending the town look into the other, larger issues.

With the understanding that the issues of property owner responsibility and alternative methods to handle drainage problems would be discussed in the near future, the council voted to approve authorizing Cusick to spend up to $15,000 on repair of the drainage issues. Headman remained opposed. A final list of recommended areas for those improvements was to be determined by town staff.

Also on June 23:

• The council considered revisions to the Planning Commission’s bylaws and procedures. The bylaws were last revised in 1999 and procedures in 2003. The updates are mostly housekeeping items and changes to match the formal rules to the way the commission already operates, such as a switch from seven members to five in 2003 and removal of the town manager and mayor as ex officio members. Fields was to work on the changers further before sending them on to the town solicitor for drafting into legislation.

• Council members also approved a standard policy for how it honors past council members, departing employees, and board, commission and committee members. The council has in the past given plaques to long-serving members, while those serving a single two-year term didn’t receive them. But the expense of plaques during a time of attempted fiscal austerity meant most council members sought to reduce how many are given out.

Outgoing committee, commission and board members will now receive letters of thanks signed by the mayor. Retiring employees with five or more years of service to the town will receive a plaque, while outgoing council members will receive a resolution signed by the new council.