Residents to vote over Johnson's Corner sewer

Salvatore and Carmelita Liberto moved from a troubled Baltimore neighborhood on May 15, 2002, into a home in Fenwick West, off of Route 20. Retired, the two do not work and live on a fixed income. But on Saturday, they will be two of hundreds of residents voting on a proposed Sussex County sewer district that will cost them thousands upfront and year after year, if the district is approved.

“If it wasn’t so expensive, I’d be 100 percent for it,” Carmelita said this week. “I don’t know what to do. Where do they think retired people are getting this kind of money?”

Connecting to the sewage lines, which will be mandatory if the referendum is approved Saturday, will cost the pair $3,600 and annual fees on their home will total $1,177. The proposed Johnson’s Corner Sewer District is carved out of a patch of land west of Fenwick and north of Route 54.

It contains roughly 450 properties, according to county officials, including those in the Fenwick West, Swann Estates, Deer Run Acres and the Hamlet at Dirickson Pond developments and dozens others scattered across the rural landscape there.

The Libertos said most of the residents in the neighborhood are retired but many are split in their opinions about the sewer district. Each property owner in the district, if it is approved, will pay the $3,600 connection and up to $1,177 a year in charges, which includes a $300 annual service charge. There is some funding assistance available for low-income residents, however.

The connection fee is drastically less than what some pay to connect to central sewer systems throughout the county, but the annual assessment charges are amongst the most expensive in Sussex, according to information available on the county Web site, at

The $300 annual service charge is only topped by the $479 residents pay in Henlopen Acres, and the front-footage assessment charge of $8.77 per foot is only topped by what residents pay in the North Bethany expansion and in the Greens at Indian River sub district, where residents pay more than $11 per foot.

“At least Al Capone had a gun when he robbed you,” Salvatore Liberto said Wednesday.

The project’s $13.7 million tag will be covered be $1.5 million federal grant, a $500,000 county council grant, $1.2 million from area developers and residents, who will abandon their septic systems.

County officials have replaced more than 14,000 septic systems around the bays since 1990 with central sewer systems, a move lauded by state and county officials as environmentally-friendly. Some, though, worry that county officials create more development zones in rural areas when they expand sewer, which is usually built to accommodate four houses to each acre of land.

“We’re creating another nightmare, another growth district,” County Councilman George Cole (R-5th) said this week. “I don’t think this is good planning. I don’t think this is in the best interest of the people living in the area.” County Council voted 4-1, with Cole dissenting, on Tuesday to approve the funding schedule. County Council President Dale Dukes said that Saturday’s referendum “will tell the story.”

Funding for the project also included $250,000 in assistance for low-income homeowners. Annual $200 subsidies will be available through the county for those who meet requirements for the low-income program. A grant of up to $2,500 to help offset the connection fee will also be available. Federal and state agencies have similar programs. Interested residents are being urged to call Sussex County’s utility billing division at 866-7871 for more information.

Agreeing with the Libertos, Tom Fahey, an 18-year Swann Estates resident, said he was worried about the costs associated with the proposal.

“It’s a very difficult decision to make because of the cost,” said Fahey, a native of Ireland who also lives on a fixed income. “It’s hard to commit yourself to money you don’t have.”