County aims to meet state road standards

Existing standards for public roads in Sussex County are admittedly less stringent than those imposed by the State of Delaware, but that could cease to be the case under a directive passed by the Sussex County Council at their Tuesday, Jan. 8, meeting.

Asked by state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) whether the county had any input on the proposed House Bill 280 — which the General Assembly was due to begin considering again with the start Jan. 8 of a new legislative session — council members reviewed a series of recommendations from county engineering, legal and administrative officials as to how the draft legislation might be modified to better accommodate Sussex County.

HB 280 would require all roads in new subdivisions to adhere to those more-stringent state standards, where currently developers have a choice between state and county standards to which to adhere. Kent and New Castle counties already have such requirements for the state standards, officials noted.

But the recommendations to the council on Jan. 8 included an exemption in Sussex County for subdivisions with 15 or fewer lots, which the county would then govern under county law and regulations. Officials cited the potential cost differential between the two standards for such minor subdivisions and small projects as the reason for that exemption.

County Engineer Mike Izzo pointed to the potential instance of a “mom-and-pop subdivision,” in which case, he said, the added costs could prove an unreasonable burden.

“I think the costs will go up some,” he said. “And some of the state standards are not practical for private developments,” he added, citing an increasing trend toward commercial projects mixed with residential development. “State standards are not necessarily built for that kind of development.”

Izzo said some of the state standards are indeed above and beyond the county’s, which has already led to the realization of a need to modernize county standards for development taking place today, he said. “It used to be single-family homes on half-acre lots — things have changed.”

County engineers were already beginning the process of such updates when word of HB 280 came across their desks, according to Izzo.

Under the county’s proposed changes for HB 280, subdivisions with 16 or fewer lots would be subject to the state roadway standards, but the recommendations include a provision to specifically authorize the county to administer the bonding, review and inspection process, to collect fees for that work, and to use county bonding standards.

County bonding standards for roadways are substantially higher than state standards, requiring 125 percent of the cost of the project as a bond, whereas the state requires just 10 percent and New Castle County only 30 percent. Outgoing Council President Dale Dukes (D-1st) said on Jan. 8 that the reasoning for the county’s high bond percentage is for such case as a developer might simply walk away from an unfinished or poorly constructed project.

County Solicitor Jim Griffin noted Jan. 8 that a major flaw in HB 280, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation puts the responsibility for administering the new requirements on the county but does not authorize it to collect fees and other costs associated with the review and inspection process.

Izzo said the county engineers were already used to doing such work, whereas the state does not have the staff to do this at this time. And he suggested the county could simply develop appropriate standards for roads in areas where the state has no such standards, without conflicting with state requirements or lessening the quality of the roadways.

In discussing the recommended changes to HB 280, council members focused on Izzo’s statement that county engineers had been ready to get started on updating the county’s own standards.

“We had planned to do that and were on track to do so when this came up,” Izzo said.

Councilman George Cole (R-4th) recommended that such being the case, the county simply go ahead and update the standards to meet or beat the state standards and not worry about HB 280.

But Izzo said the full set of state standards — including drainage and other related issues — could pose a problem for the county if it focused simply on updating its own road construction standards.

Griffin said the origin of HB 280 was likely in complaints from property owners about being required to foot the bill for reconstructing their private roads to state standards when the roads were due to be dedicated to public use – usually years after a developer has turned them over to home owners.

County Administrator David Baker recommended the council provide input to Hocker for possible amendments to HB 280, as he had been told it was a high priority for some state representatives.

New Council President Finley Jones (D-2nd) pointed to what might be behind at least of the push, saying that it seemed to be reflecting a draw on municipal street aid funds controlled by coastal legislators, with funds falling short at times. Jones said required improvements to roads in some private communities were pushing property owners to look for someone else to foot the bill, increasing the draw on legislators’ allocations.

Council members were solidly in favor of updating the county’s own standards for road construction on Tuesday, but hedged their bets with the recommended set of amendments and exemptions from the county’s engineers, which were to be forwarded to Hocker for consideration as HB 280 returns to legislators’ attention this session.