Hocker, Gray hear need for waterway maintenance tax

Date Published: 
May 23, 2014

With the federal government backing away from waterway maintenance, state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) and state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) have recently received hundreds of calls and emails about related issues.

And, at a May 13 public meeting with Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) officials and hundreds of guests, they heard how badly people want dredging and good navigation markers. But Delaware will need a source of revenue to make that happen.

When the Coast Guard announced it would not maintain the navigational aids in Pepper and White’s creeks, “I got the most emails I had gotten out of any issue,” Gray said.

The Coast Guard subsequently announced it will at least continue navigational aids for this year, Gray said, but the future of the waterways is up in the air.

Now, Hocker said he believes a new tax is needed for local waters.

“There is no dedicated source of funding for waterway management,” said Frank Piorko, director of DNREC’s Division of Watershed Stewardship.

Other states might have a dedicated fund, like a motor fuel tax, or they just “wait for the tide to come up,” Piorko said. “We don’t have anything in Delaware for waterway management, aside from what we gleaned from our bond bill appropriations, what get from the General Assembly” each year during budget time. “We don’t have an additional source of funding.”

The office creates a five-year plan, but it’s hard to follow that plan when funding changes year-to-year in the State budget. The division must serve all waterway users — anglers, vacationers, wildlife and more.

Projects now

and funding later

“What are we going to do today about the markers? What are we going to do tomorrow? And what is our long-range plan? I see people walking out … and I’d like to see some answers,” said resident John Mitchell at the end of a 1.5-hour meeting.

“It’s been an ad-hoc arrangement since I’ve been here … since 1975,” said Chuck Williams, a program manager in the Division of Watershed Stewardship. “We’re trying to develop a plan.”

The channel markers, especially, he said, caught them “flatfooted.”

Of 18 channel markers, half are fixed structures. Williams said, “We’re prepared to take over maintenance of the fixed structures if the Coast Guard will let us. They’re all in good shape,” he noted. The other half are buoys, which would cost $50,000 to replace if taken out tomorrow, he said. Some money could be pulled from the State’s dredging fund.

There were several future funding suggestions.

Hocker had once supported a fishing license tax and served on the management committee to ensure the money was well spent.

“We need a tax that is going to be just as well-spent on channel maintenance,” he said. He suggested offering an unblended gasoline (no ethanol) at marinas, which could be taxed.

According to Hocker, the governor’s signature could permit ethanol-free gasoline to be sold again in Delaware, which Hocker said would prevent boaters from buying gasoline in Maryland.

He said he’s even met a gas supplier from the Carolinas “willing to bring it here.”

“We haven’t done a thing, because I wanted your input,” Hocker said. “How do you want me to go about it? I need to sell it” to other legislators. “It’s got to have support.”

Gray said some Sussex County Council members considered “wrapping up some money for the inland bays,” but whatever happens, he said, “the real issue with me is whatever you put the funds for, they need to stay there.” If Delaware creates a special dredging fund, he said, he would drop it if the money was ever used for anything but dredging.

“I keep hearing revenue, revenue, revenue,” said Rep. John Atkins (D-41st). “We are leaving $25 million over on the other side of Bridgeville without a toll. Ninety-five percent of that will be paid by out-of-staters. You could put a toll over on 404, paid by out-of-staters.”

Atkins has already suggested making Route 404 a toll road in order to avoid a proposed 10-cent gas tax. This week he suggested that the funds from a Route 404 toll be split between road and waterway management.

“My wife and I pay $6 every time we go across the [Chesapeake] Bay Bridge. That’s not going to stop me from watching the Orioles,” he said. “People are not going to stop visiting Sussex County in their $350,000- or million-dollar houses.”

“We own rental property. We know people come to this area because of the inter-coastal waterways,” said Rose Walker. “They can throw a kayak down, watch the sunset. … That does bring a lot of the money” to Delaware.

Visitors come for the natural resources, and they are a monetary resource, as well, meeting attendees said.

Fowler noted that many out-of-state boaters register in tax-friendly Delaware, although their boats have “never seen Wilmington.”

Hocker also mentioned that he would like to keep money local. Of Delaware’s 27 navigable waterways, 10 branch from the inland bays.

Creating a public voice for waterways

“We have not had a collective voice in Delaware looking out for waterways … not had political pressure,” as has been the case with the beaches, for example, said Tony Pratt, head of DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section in the Division of Watershed Stewardship. “It’s time for a collective vision what we want waterways in this state to look like.”

The best way to overcome these dredging challenges is to look at the benefits for safe boating, water flow, keeping animals safe from propellers and vice-versa, he added.

He said the benefits will outweigh the costs, so everyone must put their voices forward.

“This is a statewide issue,” not just the Rehoboth Bay, Indian River Bay or Town of Millville, Pratt emphasize. Islands are already disappearing. DNREC is researching ways to rebuild them and vanishing marshes with soil from dredging sites, rather than putting it on increasingly-expensive real estate.

“Let’s not count on the federal government, because we can’t say that they’re going to be back,” Pratt said. “We need you. If we’re going to be heard representing your interests, we need you to have a loud, clear and intelligent voice.”

Part of Delaware’s challenge is the federal government’s evaluation of waterways. They’re all considered “underutilized,” except Port of Wilmington, C&D Canal and similar bodies, because they don’t have heavy boat activity.

However, Pratt said, there must be political pressure to get an evaluation based on national economic benefits, such as Delaware’s huge tourism industry based around its waterways. That is worth more than just how many cargo ships pass through.

Without the Army Corps of Engineers dredging, the Coast Guard cannot mark the silted-over waterways.

“What’s concerning is they do have a Corps mission to assist in wetland preservation,” said resident Janet Dubbert. “We might be overlooking an aspect of what they have responsibility for,” she added, suggesting the Army Corps might be sold on “wetland preservation as a result of dredging.”

Holts Landing

and Assawoman trail

Some people at this week’s meeting were concerned about how much money was available for different projects, but State staff said it all comes from different pots, some of which are tough to access — especially for federal money.

For instance, Holts Landing will get a temporary ramp by Memorial Day. Ray Bivens of Delaware State Parks apologized that it had taken so long to get the courtesy dock up but said FEMA only wanted to give $20,000 for Hurricane Sandy repairs, when Holts Landing suffered much more damage.

Eventually, a permanent (possibly dual) ramp will be installed, with extra lighting.

Hocker is personally interested in Holts Landing State Park. He noted that the softball diamond there is gone, the grills and pavilion are no longer used for family reunions, and he wouldn’t seat his family at the run-down picnic tables.

“Holts Landing has been run into the ground, and I’m determined” to fix it, he said, suggesting a public-private partnership.

Likewise, fees go specific places. Boat registration fees go to pay for marine safety and marine control officers. Fishing license fees maintain boat access points, including ramps, parking and nearby sediment dredging.

As for the Assawoman Canal Trail — a meeting was held last month with adjacent homeowners. The mile-long trail bordering the canal would be accessible from Route 26, Cedar Neck Road/Central Avenue and possibly Elliot Avenue near the marina. The trail is intended for pedestrians and bicyclists only and will be open from 8 a.m. to sunset, seven days a week.

Residents have expressed concern over the possible loss of privacy and safety on land that is basically in their back yards, although the strip of land is itself State-owned.

“It’s natural to see that initial reaction, but we’ve seen time and time again across the state and country, real estate values increase,” said Bivens, noting that he heard many people on the Delaware Greenways trail say they were originally against it, only to admit “But now I use all the time,” often with their grandchildren.

The Assawoman Canal Trail project is currently in the design phase.