Route 113 bypass public hearings scheduled for Sept. 18-19

The public is being strongly encouraged to share their opinions on the proposed Route 113 bypass that could someday cut a new 16.5-mile highway through Sussex County. Officials with the Delaware Department of Transportation visited the Frankford Town Council on Sept. 9 — one in a series of meetings to inform people of the public hearings.

People are responding to the recently published Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which studies the pros and cons of five options for a limited-access highway.

The federal government would pay for 80 percent of the major highway project, but they require DelDOT to complete a DEIS, public hearing and Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) before they’ll consider anything.

The “Blue Alternative” was chosen as DelDOT’s “preferred” route for the project. The proposed route creates a new highway that splits from the existing Route 113 north of Millsboro, curves eastward and rejoins the existing highway just south of Frankford. Part of Route 113 through Selbyville also becomes limited-access.

People can attend public hearings on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Millsboro Civic Center, or Thursday, Sept. 19, at Selbyville Fire Hall to learn more about the project and offer their comments. They can view maps and diagrams and speak to DelDOT employees from 4 to 8 p.m. both nights. The public hearings officially begin at 6 p.m. People can sign up to talk for three minutes. They can also give testimony in a private setting with a court stenographer.

Those unable to attend the meeting can also submit letters or online comments by Friday, Oct. 4.

The Blue Alternative is considered the most complex of the proposed routes, affecting 1,084 acres of land and costing $687 million to $839 million.

The existing Route 113 is lined with rural homes and businesses, but it serves as a central artery of the Sussex County highway system. The large traffic volume, which already increases by 60 percent in the summer, is expected to increase further as more cars travel to the beaches and Eastern Shore.

At the Sept. 9 Frankford Town Council meeting, state Rep. John Adkins (D-41st) sent a letter opposing a bypass in Dagsboro, Frankford and Selbyville. In those areas south of Millsboro, a vocal group wants nothing beyond “on-alignment” improvements to the existing highway. Atkins called the farmers who contacted him in opposition — many living and working on Century Farms or farms nearing that designation — “the backbone of the 41st District” whose land would be chopped up by the proposed route.

The Blue Alternative impacts 71 total properties (52 residential, 10 commercial and nine agricultural). That’s on the lower end, residentially and commercially, compared to other alternatives, but on the higher end for agricultural impacts.

Carrie Bennett of Bennett Orchards, located outside of Frankford, encouraged the town council to vote to oppose the bypass. Her husband, Jim, said he was the only agricultural representative from south of Millsboro who had served on the community Working Group that was formed to study the traffic issues in 2004. She gave the council a list of reasons to oppose the bypass.

The public is being encouraged to submit “qualitative” comments to the State, such as suggestions or reasons for or against building the highway. Petitions are being accepted, but provide less guidance, said Andrew Bing of the U.S. 113 project team.

In the audience for the Sept. 9 council meeting, Henry Bennett noted that two petitions were submitted but asserted that DelDOT had disregarded 522 of the signatures, plus another 118 signatures, because they were not residents of the affected area or “directly affected” by the project.

Tina and Jerry Moore are building a new home on his old family farm. They thought the bypass idea had been canceled years ago, but just learned a few weeks ago that it was progressing again.

“The bypass is going right through our home and our farm,” Tina Moore said, her voice wavering. “This is our retirement home. That’s our life.”

The 85-acre farm is located on land where three generations were born and raised. The croplands and horse racetrack would be severed by the freeway and realigned Murray Road.

“They issued us a building permit,” Moore said of Sussex County. “They allowed us to build.”

“It’s ruining our livelihood. We can’t raise horses, can’t raise crops,” said Jerry Moore. “I thought it was a moot issue.”

“We just installed cabinets,” Tina Moore lamented.

Funding has not been specifically allocated for the Route 113 project, although money has been spent to reserve land in deals that DelDOT made under its previous head. Gov. Jack Markell halted discussions of the Route 113 project in 2011, in the wake of the firings and resignations of a number of DelDOT officials after it was revealed in a Coastal Point article that they had been paying landowners to leave their property undeveloped, without using official appraisals or contracts as part of that process.

Carrie Bennett asked on Monday if DelDOT can still “go underground and obtain and preserve the corridor” for the entire 16.5 miles if the Final Environmental Impact Statement is approved.

“We can’t do anything without funding,” said engineer George Spadafino.

“If it’s not funded, will you still pursue corridor preservations?” Bennett asked.

“I don’t know,” said Spadafino, recommending she ask at the Sept. 18 and 19 hearings. “We take our order from the legislators.”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Bennett countered.

“They hold our purse strings,” Spadafino said.

“Thank god,” Bennett said.

DelDOT has already paid for some land to remain undeveloped at the Patriot’s Landing community in north Millsboro. They are now in litigation to formally acquire it.

“How much land are you going to lose? None?” asked Jesse Truitt, president of Frankford Town Council. “I don’t know how council feels. I don’t like it.”

Spadafino noted that every highway alternative and project is likely to have land loss, and pointed out that he “grew up next to a 300-acre farm. It’s happening everywhere.”

Bing said DelDOT aims to plan early for the future, to prevent people from saying, “Why did you not take the chance?” — a sentiment expressed in recent years about improvements to Route 26.

“You can’t take care of the roads you have now,” Truitt said. “You can’t keep the grass cut.”

State Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) said he and his predecessor in that position, George Bunting Jr., were disappointed in the direction the North/South Study had taken after Bunting’s introduced a resolution 12 years ago to study traffic in the area.

“Sussex County legislators made it clear there is no funding for anything south of Millsboro. Then we heard we had to do the whole study. I’m hearing there is a dire need for Millsboro [especially] Route 24,” Hocker said. “[DelDOT] knew prior to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that it would be a dead project.”

“Millsboro-South is one project,” said Bing. “Some areas higher-priority, some are lower. For Millsboro to go forward, the environmental impact statement must be finished. It’s all or nothing.” Afterward, he said, an official decision “allows the Department [of Transportation] and legislators and the public to decide if there’s a need. Then we’re allowed to obtain [land].”

Nationally, it takes an average of eight years to complete each FEIS, Bing said. The Sussex County study took a while, he said, because “this type of study had never been done” in Southeastern Sussex. “It’s a long process. Gone are the days where you get a knock at the door, and you’ve got three hours to leave before a bulldozer [arrives].”

DelDOT has been instructed by the agency’s head and the governor to finish the environmental document, which includes getting public comments for the final draft, Bing emphasized. If anything is to be built with federal financial aid, the document must be completed. Anything else is up to the people, DelDOT representatives said on Monday.

This week, notices about the Sept. 18 and 19 hearings are being mailed to around 7,000 people, Bing said.

“Let your friends and neighbors know,” he added. “Our hope is that as many people as possible show up as possible. It doesn’t matter what the input is.”