Frankford Town Council and Planning Commission members came together on April 17 to continue work on the town’s comprehensive plan update, which has been on hold since December. However, the bulk of Tuesday’s meeting focused not on the town’s current and future limits and plans but instead on how that future might be impacted by a proposed large-scale revamp of U.S. Route 113.
The U.S. Route 113 North-South Study was created “to identify, select and protect an alignment for a limited access U.S. 113 highway,” according to Delaware’s Department of Transportation (DelDOT). “The purpose of the project is not to construct the road at this time, but rather, having chosen the alignment, to be able to protect that alignment until such time as both need and available funds dictate the timing of actual construction.”
By “protecting that alignment,” DelDOT is referring to the same sort of “reservation” procedures that have preceded major planned renovations and expansions to other large roadways in the state — including “protective right-of-way acquisition of key properties that might otherwise go into development or to allow individual homeowners impacted by the preferred alternative to address hardship situations or to simply move on with their lives.”
Many of Frankford’s residents, as well as those in neighboring Dagsboro, Selbyville, Millsboro and unincorporated Sussex County, have paid little mind to the study — now some five years in the making — as it has progressed through the early stages and into public workshops.
Though 800 people attended the seventh round of public workshops, held on March 12 and 15, for the Millsboro-South and Georgetown areas of the study, and the official comment period for those workshops ended on April 13, most property owners in the area appear to still be in the dark about the project’s potential impact on their lives and properties.
According to Jim Bennett, a Frankford-area resident and a three-year member of the DelDOT working group representing the Millsboro-South area of the project, time is now short for the area’s property owners and residents to have their say in the process, as the various local groups seek to further narrow down some of the options for a new or improved Route 113 and make their recommendations to DelDOT.
“If you don’t, you’ll get what’s given to you. And it may not be good for Frankford,” Bennett warned Frankford officials this week.
On-alignment, off-alignment options
Bennett has been trying to get formal positions from Dagsboro and Frankford officials on the various alternatives for Route 113, to add them to the preferences already expressed by officials in Selbyville and Millsboro.
Selbyville officials have asked that the Route 113 project be done under the “on-alignment” plan — meaning that the new Route 113 will follow the existing Route 113, but with a four-lane limited-access highway as its central feature and a dual-lane access or service road on either side. Selbyville figures that option will keep traffic flowing through the town with customers for existing businesses and new ones, Bennett said.
The limited-access highway — called a “controlled-access highway” in some variants — would permit travelers using Route 113 to drive more directly to their distant destinations, with limited numbers of locations where drivers can enter and leave the highway.
Local travelers would generally choose the access roads along its sides to travel within town or perhaps from one neighboring town to the next, over short distances. Clover-leafs and overpasses would allow drivers to exit and enter the highway to and from local and service roads, and to cross them. One example in the area is Route 113’s Maryland section, just south of Selbyville.
Millsboro officials, on the other hand, have expressed a preference for the off-alignment options, which would create a Route 113 bypass that travels around Millsboro to the east, across the Indian River and to the south via one of three alternatives:
(1) directly back to existing Route 113, south of Millsboro (considered an unlikely choice, according to Bennett);
(2) back to existing Route 113 at a point south of Dagsboro; or
(3) (most likely) heading farther south, through the area east of Frankford — near Frankford Elementary — and rejoining existing Route 113 to the south of Frankford’s town limits. This option would include a direct connection to Route 26 from Route 113.
The third option is the one of primary concern to those living in and around Frankford, of course.
Property owners to the east could be impacted
Bennett referred to the so-called “Eastern Bypass” option as “a pretty catastrophic type of approach” and said property owners with land in the proposed corridor could expect not to be able to do much of anything with their property if DelDOT went with that option and started “protection” actions.
Such a move could result in a property owner’s inability to sell the property, to build on it for themselves or relatives, and on its overall value. And Bennett warned there were no guarantees that the state would pay fair market value (as assessed prior to such a plan) for the properties that would be affected, or pay anything at all.
Frankford Town Council President Greg Johnson appeared leery of the idea on Tuesday, likening the Route 113 “Eastern Bypass” concept to Route 50 bypass that now runs that highway’s traffic around Salisbury, Md. “It will take more people to the beach, via Route 26,” he allowed.
Bennett told officials that the Route 113 study was geared toward preventing the kind of land-lock problems that Route 1 has seen in the last 20 years, protecting the rights-of-way for the state to expand a road against future traffic needs — something that has been generally concluded as impossible now for north-south and east-west traffic in the immediate vicinity of the state’s beach towns.
Route 113 does have an existing 300-foot right-of-way in most areas, enabling an expansion to be made much more easily along the current alignment. That’s Selbyville’s preference, as it hopes to keep existing and likely expanding commercial traffic for its businesses. Millsboro officials, on the other hand, would prefer the bypass spare the existing town from growing traffic flows toward south and east.
Towns yet to weigh in
Neither Dagsboro nor Frankford has expressed an official preference over the issue. Indeed, most residents of the two towns — as well as those farther to the east — seem to be as yet unaware of the potential impact of the various proposals, considering it instead to be a Selbyville and Millsboro issue. But Bennett has been keen to make sure the residents of Frankford and Dagsboro, and their unincorporated neighbors are fully aware of the potential impacts on them and their property — particularly regarding the proposed eastern bypass.
Bennett planned to talk with Dagsboro officials at their council meeting on April 24, just as he did at Frankford’s most recent meeting. “I hope we can get a consensus,” he said. “It would be nice if Frankford and Dagsboro, and the surrounding community, can come to an agreement.”
He had noted previously that the two towns’ voices could make the difference in the study group’s recommendations to DelDOT, since Millsboro and Selbyville are divided on their preferences. But he also emphasized to Frankford officials this week that Millsboro had looked at the potential to push its commercial development and some heavy traffic to its side with the bypass options, even suggesting a short western bypass around the town as a third major option.
Bennett said Frankford could still make similar requests at this stage in the process, though the working group had targeted at its previous meetings the whittling down of addition options that have since been eliminated from consideration. The important thing, he said, was that the towns decide what they wanted out of the proposals for Route 113 and make that preference known, and soon.
Lesser changes likely to change towns too
Beyond the potential impact on the properties that might become part of or immediate neighbors to a potential bypass, Frankford officials on Tuesday night were focused on the proposals’ potential impact on the town itself — the main reason for the topic being addressed at their comprehensive plan update.
A limited-access highway, on the on-alignment plan, could hamper east-west travel for locals — including emergency workers — since there would only be a limited ability to enter and leave the highway.
The location and layout of a bypass, as well as any on-alignment plan, would also affect how traffic flows into the towns. As currently proposed, the on-alignment option would provide Frankford with two smaller interchanges, north and south, with a larger interchange at Delaware Street that would essentially become the main entrance to the town from the highway.
The town’s current plans for designating commercial, industrial and residential districts might have to be altered to adapt to highway exits and entrances where trucks could more easily access commercial and industrial locations, or to place residential zones away from highway traffic.
Some options might suggest the need for additional access roads and turn-arounds, to allow a Mountaire feed truck, for instance, to more easily get on and off the highway without cutting right through town.
Planning commissioners on April 17 appeared to favor the on-alignment option for many reasons, not the least of which was the reduced impact on Frankford Elementary and that area. But they were also concerned with the details of the on-alignment plan, as it too could mean major changes for the small but growing town.
“We were going to put the center of town on Hickory Street,” Council Member Jesse Truitt noted, pointing to the potential impact of the revamped Route 113 on a light-industrial area aimed for the location. Potential future development and annexation to the east could also be affected, council members noted.
While the scope of the project and its potential impact on the entire southern portion of Sussex County are tremendous, Bennett was emphatic that the town needs to be making its voice heard on the issue sooner, rather than later.
“This needs to be decided now,” he warned Frankford officials. He invited them to a May 1 meeting of the Millsboro-South working group, at 5:30 p.m. at the Millsboro fire hall, with an eye toward a May 17 working group meeting and their final planned work on the project in June. The next phase of general public input is not set to happen until the fall, Bennett said.
For more information on the U.S. Route 113 North-South study, including maps of the proposed options and their routes, visit the Web site at www.deldot.gov/static/projects/us113/ and look for next week’s issue of the Coastal Point.
Comp plan update continues for Frankford
Frankford council members on April 17 also delved into a two-page question form provided by the town’s comprehensive-plan consultant. The questions were designed to help discern changes needed from the existing draft of the plan, focusing on its population forecasts, housing “pipeline,” government services, streetscaping concepts, future annexation areas and zoning designations.
Town Manager Terry Truitt noted that she felt the existing estimate of the town’s population was too low, at just 800 residents. She said at least 20 percent of the predicted 51 new houses between 2005 and 2015 had been built in just the last two years. Council members agreed that an update or new algorithm for the figure was needed, lest they hurt themselves with an underestimate.
Likewise, they noted an upswing in the number of occupied houses, up from an estimated 85 percent to perhaps 95 percent, as vacant homes had been torn down, sold or rented. Annexation is also likely to increase that number, though just 40 percent of Frankford’s property owners are believed to currently reside on their town property.
Also changing for the town is the possible re-creation of a police department. The town is no longer served by contracted state troopers but is still served by ad hoc response from Troop 4. And its local schools continue to shift and expand under plans from the Indian River School District.
Council members were in agreement that the town maps need to be updated and coordinated to a higher degree, with finalization of proposed annexation areas, timetables and zoning designations to be made. All of these things could also be affected by the Route 113 study, as well.
The council was leery of designating some outlying areas as prime for short-term annexation goals, noting a priority for the Delaware Street area in the short term and requests from some property owners outside town limits for water service.
Also cropping up during the discussion, the notion that the town might unintentionally lock itself in to annexation of commercial property before it irons out its codes regarding zoning of newly annexed properties.
As it stands, all property annexed is supposed to be brought into the town zoned as residential. But officials noted that the rule might force the shut-down of existing commercial businesses until re-zoning was completed. Blanket annexation of property with a county-zoned commercial designation could also open the town up to unwanted high-level commercial development as well, they noted.
Terry Truitt said ordinance overhauls would be a next stage of planning after the town finishes its comp plan update. Those issues, and more, are likely to be on tap for the planning group as it meets with its Institute for Public Administration consultant at some time after the council’s May meeting.