Consultants recommend expansion for county

With space at the Sussex County administrative building and other county complexes becoming increasingly elbow-to-elbow, council members in January asked consultants at Studio J to look into the county government’s space needs — now and a modest two years into the future.

On Tuesday, June 5, they received a report that found them some 45,000 square feet — and many parking spaces — lacking.

Jim Hutchinson of Studio J noted that extensive research by his firm had gone into the report to the county council. Consultants interviewed department heads and staff at large, reviewing their current and projected short-term needs for the next two years.

A staff survey involved the number of county staff, planned growth in those numbers over the next two years, department missions and organization, plus a wide variety of operational issues, such as hours, adjacency and dependency requirements related to other departments, public interface requirements, and meeting and common space needs.

Also surveyed were space-related issues, such as the current layouts of the departments, their processes and loads for file generation and storage, any equipment and vehicles used, parking utilization, shipping and receiving needs, upcoming regulatory changes that would impact their operation, break schedules and needs, and the recommendations of staff members for changes.

Parking and records emerged as key areas of concern, Hutchinson told council members on Tuesday.

“Records storage in virtually every department of county operations is a crucial and very difficult issue at this time,” he noted, pointing to situations in most departments where “archival-level” records were “taking up valuable space within their daily operational space.”

On that basis, Hutchinson declared that a long-term solution was required for the archived records of the county.

Parking difficulties — long acknowledged by most whom are part of or involved with Sussex County government — are also high on the list of things that need to be addressed, Hutchinson said.

Studio J had reviewed both the needs of current and near-future staff and regulatory requirements imposed on the county complexes by the City of Georgetown, he said. “It won’t come as a surprise to any of you that you don’t have enough parking to satisfy either one of those items,” he told council members.

With 226 current county employees and a plan to expand to 257 employees in the next two years, the existing 331 available off-street parking spaces and 100 on-street spaces within comfortable walking distance of the administration building simply aren’t enough to meet the needs of both county staff, officials and citizens needing to park near or at the county offices, Hutchinson said.

The bottom line for the space-challenged county government, the consultant said: a need for some 130,900 total square feet of space in the next two years. Hutchinson called that a “benchmark number,” meaning that even more space could prove useful but that a target of 130,900 square feet of space should be the rough minimum aim of any expansion of facilities.

Current county facilities at the administrative building off The Circle, the West Complex, the Register of Wills’ office at the Court of Chancery, the county’s Economic Development Office and Emergency Operations Center comprise less than 90,000 square feet, all told. The administrative building makes up about 40,000 square feet of that current total.

That leaves the county wanting 45,000 square feet of space to get to an “optimal amount” for departmental operations, storage of equipment, employee facilities, shipping and receiving areas, and the all-important records storage.

There, Hutchinson said at least 5,000 square feet of space were needed for records storage alone. Shipping and receiving, and expanded employee break and lunch facilities added another 2,000 square feet recommended by the consultant that comprise a 7,000-square-foot total for need “other space” that doesn’t directly fit into departmental areas.

Council members noted that Studio J had actually recommended more parking at the West Complex than at future county administrative facilities. Hutchinson said the issue there was primarily the county’s sheriff’s sales, which frequently draw 100 people or more — most of whom arrive alone in individual vehicles and all of whom need parking at generally the same time.

The council was not requested to take any action on the needs-assessment from Studio J on June 5. But the report could point the way toward needed expansion of county facilities in Georgetown as the county — and its government — continue to grow at a sharp pace.

Council approves grant, grant application

Council members did take action on Tuesday on several issues.

Unanimous approval was given to release of the remaining $5,370 of the county’s annual $25,000 police grant for Ocean View, which is to be used for the purchase of a copier and supporting hardware for the new police station, as well as Taser cartridges.

The council also unanimously approved county administration proceeding with an application for $50,000 in grants from the USDA rural housing service, designed to assist with annual projects to preserve approximately 12 dwellings owned by low-income permanent residents of the county.

Sussex County has participated in the grant program for more than five years. Those seeking a portion of the available grant funds from the USDA must submit an application by June 18 this year, making the county’s approval of the application to the federal agency somewhat urgent.

County officials noted that the program has been very popular for its own applicants, with the few available spots to apply being taken within 15 minutes of their opening in October of each year. The waiting list for the grants is as much as five to seven years, they said. No negative comments had been received during the comment period on the grant application, they noted.

Those receiving the grants must be permanent residents, but council members noted on Tuesday that there was no specific time requirement for residency to establish eligibility under the program.

However, a three-year lien is placed upon properties preserved under the program, which requires repayment if the residents move out of the home prior to the end of the lien. Program administrators said no one had ever applied to the program after just months of living in the area, though — particularly due to the limited availability and lien requirements.

The program is augmented with funding from the Community Development Block Grants that the county also offers each year, and which are equally in demand by the county’s low-income home owners.

Runway rehab contract given go-ahead

The Sussex County Council on June 5 also unanimously approved the awarding of a contract for runway rehabilitation at the county airport in Georgetown. The project is aimed at fixing up a secondary runway that runs perpendicular to the airport’s main runway, leading up to a proposed extension of that main runway.

County officials told council members that the Federal Aviation Administration had mandated the rehabilitation before it would consider allowing the facility to move ahead with the future runway extension.

The newly approved contract will continue on from a previous contract that involved the demolition of the same secondary runway. Officials said that materials from that demolition had been stockpiled for use as a base layer for the rehabilitation.

The same company that performed the demolition — Baltimore-based Dixie Construction Inc., which now has a small office in Georgetown — was again the low bidder on the rehabilitation phase of the project, at $4.2 million. Their previous work was deemed “pretty good” with “some bumps and bruises,” but their familiarity with the project, its hurdles and challenges was deemed a plus.

The county will not fund the entire $4.2 million project out of its own coffers. If approved for an anticipated FAA cost-share grant, the FAA would pay 95 percent of the tab, while the county and state government each pick up 2.5 percent. The county total would come in at $122,000 under the approved contract.

Council members on Tuesday made their approval of the bid for the work contingent on receiving the FAA grant. Word on that is expected within 60 days, county officials said.

Once completed, the refurbishment of the secondary runway will clear the way for the county to move into the design phase of roadway construction for routes leading to the facility. That is considered to be a two-year project, which would in turn pave the way for design of the runway extension and its eventual construction. The entire process is expected to take five years, assuming that grants and other funding and permitting issues fall into line.

Council members favored the large “base bid” on Tuesday, over a more modest “alternative” refurbishment proposal that would have left off a section of runway that will eventually be required if the FAA is to grant the go-ahead on the runway extension. County engineers recommended the full “base bid” project.

County Administrator David Baker also noted on June 5 that the airport had recently hosted NASCAR drivers who had raced at Dover Downs in a rescheduled race on June 4. The drivers had been flow into and out of the Georgetown airport, with hospitality provided by a number of county employees.

The airport also played host to a Goodyear blimp in connection to the race, with the blimp scheduled to remain at the airport until Friday, June 8. The location is the same one at which blimps were assembled during the 1960s, Baker noted.

Sewer district expansion continues

The council also gave a unanimous go-ahead on Tuesday to the posting of notices that is the first step of establishing the Piney Neck expansion of the Dagsboro/Frankford sewer district. The expansion area would run from Piney Neck Road south to Pepper Creek, encompassing 850 acres northeast of Dagsboro and contiguous to the existing sewer district boundary.

Some 880 units have been proposed for the area, several of which are in large developments and some of which have already been approved by the county. The area also contains some Sussex County Land Trust acreage.

Some of those approved developments had gone through the county process with private wastewater facilities, despite opposition from some neighboring property owners who had cited concerns about multiple wastewater systems on the small peninsula. So, when county engineers identified the potential to add capacity at the district treatment plant, they said, they had considered an expanded sewer district a “viable alternative” to the individual private wastewater systems.

The county engineering department is in the permitting process for the plant expansion at this time, with the expectation that — if approved — the expanded plant could not only handle the additional dwelling units of an expanded district but allow an existing cap on developments inside of Dagsboro to be lifted.

Developers are generally required to foot the bill for or to conduct themselves the construction of pump stations and force mains needed to extend sewer capacity to their future communities. County engineers said they also aimed to have developers in the expansion zone help out with some of the runs of gravity-fed mains in the area as well.

Establishment of the nearby Johnson’s Corner sewer district is already proceeding, with approval of the notice posting granted last September by the county council. Boundaries for the district were approved at a Jan. 27 hearing and the council accepted those boundaries on May 1.

County engineers said newsletters are now being sent to property owners in the proposed Johnson’s Corner district, with information on connection costs, project costs, timetables and the referendum that is required to finally establish the new sewer district. A meeting is also set for Thursday, June 21, at 6 p.m. at the Roxana Fire Hall to discuss any concerns and answer any questions about the expansion process.

The referendum that would allow property owners to approve the new district has been set for July 21, at Sound Church, located at the intersection of Route 54 and Sound Church Road. Absentee ballots will be available and are due back to the county by July 20.

Baker announced that construction of the expansion of the Millville Sewer District to the White’s Creek Manor community has been completed, with property owners allowed to start connecting beginning June 18.

Also at their June 5 meeting, council members approved grants to the Lewes Senior Center, Sussex County AIDS Council, Georgetown Lions Club, Laurel Chamber of Commerce for Independence Day events, North Laurel Elementary School, Delaware Storm baseball team, Woodland Ferry Association fall festival and Habitat for Humanity for permitting at its Georgetown office.

Introduced were two ordinances for conditional uses: allowing the manufacture of boat tops in a B-1 district and allowing a boat storage facility in an AR-1 district.

Council members are due to meet again on June 12, at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers off The Circle in Georgetown.