Ocean View residents still concerned over drainage, taxes

The regular monthly meeting of the Ocean View Town Council this week continued a trend of seeing a larger-than-usual attendance of the town’s citizens, as several issues continue to garner input from townsfolk.

During the July 20 meeting, the council returned to discussion of a proposal from Avon Park resident Nicole Kelly, requesting the Town contribute approximately $6,000 to help pay for drainage work that would help eight parcels in the community.

Kelly received a proposal from the Sussex Conservation District (SCD) after contacting them about long-standing drainage issues in her development. The SCD suggested creating a catch basin that would take the water to the Deep Hole Tax Ditch. Through their cost-sharing program, SCD would pay $5,000 of the cost, but Avon Park would need to supply the balance.

Kelly said the Town’s financial support would be in line with their support in 2015, when they spent approximately $45,000 to address some of the neighborhood’s drainage issues.

“Your timely support is necessary at this time,” she said.

Ocean View Mayor Walter Curran praised Kelly for her hard work and dedication to trying to address Avon Park’s issues.

“I again commend Nicole Kelly for the effort she has expended trying to help cure her neighborhood’s drainage issues. I think the plan that the Sussex Conservation District has come up with is a good solution for their individual backyard problems,” he said.

“In Ms. Kelly’s communications to the Town, she has pointed out that a prior Avon Park drainage project was completed and paid for by the Town, and she is correct,” Curran acknowledged. “However, that work should not have been paid for by the Town.”

Curran said he did not support the Town paying money for those eight parcels, as he believed it to be “unethical … to pay for individual homeowner problems with Town tax money.”

“Whatever mistakes were made in the past serve as a lesson learned but should not be repeated… I recommend that the homeowners of Avon Park take advantage of the offer by the Sussex Conservation District and get the work done… From my position as mayor … I say we should not participate financially. It is not what the Town is supposed to do.”

Curran said Town Manager Dianne Vogel had researched the matter and found documents from when Avon Park and Wedgefield were annexed into the Town in 2002, stating that the Town would not be responsible for drainage issues.

“Quite frankly, the Town should not have spent the $45,000 back then,” said Curran.

Councilman Tom Maly said he, too, is opposed to having the Town financially contribute to the project, noting that he represents a number of communities who spend their own money to manage their stormwater.

“Speaking for my community, we spend $13,000 per year to manage our stormwater management system. It’s hard for me to go back to my community and other communities like Bear Trap and Savannah’s Landing who spend considerable amounts of money to manager their stormwater, to have them use their tax dollars to manage somebody else’s.”

Councilman Berton Reynolds disagreed with other members of council, noting that the Town has drainage issues in both Avon Park and Wedgefield slated to be addressed in 2020, and saying that the contribution could help save the Town money.

Burton was the only council member in favor of financially supporting the project.

Kelly voiced her disappointment with the council’s decision, suggesting there was favoritism when the 2015 project occurred.

“I’ve had had two other people come up to me and have that same allegation,” said Curran. “There was no favoritism. What there was was a decision based on information given to us that we relied on. Now we find out we never should have relied on it… That’s not fixing things retroactively — that’s learning from mistakes. We’re fixing things going forward.”

During Citizens’ Privilege, Woodland Park resident Bill Goodwin requested an update on the Town acquiring easements for the Woodland Park/Woodland Avenue drainage project.

“Recently, we had a gentleman pull out his wet-dry vac, stood out in his driveway and sucked the water out of his swale,” said Goodwin, illustrating the need for action.

Curran said Woodland Park is “leading the parade” on Town drainage projects.

The Town will hold an informational meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 6 p.m. for Woodland Park residents to learn about the drainage project.

“It is our hope that a full explanation, with photos, will clarify any misunderstanding anyone may have about why we need easements to perform the work.”

Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader had said in April that the Town needed to acquire 13 easements in order to begin work. Having obtained three since then, Schrader said there is another property owner he expects to sign off on the easement soon.

“It’s complicated… We have two people we can’t find,” he added. “We have that problem to deal with. We have a couple that are just adamant that they aren’t going to cooperate… Ultimately, I’m going to begin filing condemnation actions against the people who have failed to cooperate.”

Curran said that, aside from the Woodland project, all other proposed drainage projects within the town are being discussed and analyzed, to be prioritized “within a few months.”

“After priorities are set, everything else being equal, whichever neighborhood cooperates best and gets easements signed the quickest, with the least amount of legal hassle, will go to the top of the list.”

Phil Sommer, who has owned his home in Woodland Park since 2013, noted that there is a home within the community where the owner built a boardwalk to get out to their mailbox.

Kate Hungerford of Woodland Park said she had called Vogel prior to June 11, asking when Woodland Park’s project would begin.

“She told me there were no plans whatsoever for the drainage problem in Woodland Park, and now you’re saying there are plans. I had been lied to so many times and been given different excuses that I don’t believe what’s being said. My question is this: What is your estimated date of when this project will begin?”

Curran said that, once the easements were acquired, the Town would still need to advertise the project, seek bids and sign contracts. He estimated that it could begin in October.

Taxes also a point of contention

 In a statement, Curran said taxes go hand-in-hand with drainage projects, as the council voted to raise taxes for that specific purpose.

“As we progress in our review of the outstanding list of drainage projects, the first thing we have to determine is ‘Who is responsible?’ There were decisions made in the past that were wrong. A number of the projects on the current drainage project list are questionable. This is extremely disturbing, because I and the remainder of this town council made a decision to raise taxes significantly based on the estimated costs of these projects. We all relied on the information provided to us.”

Curran said that, at the time of the tax increase, he had said it would get the Town through two years, but depending on the remaining drainage projects, another increase in taxes could be necessary before then.

“I am now convinced that we will not be facing additional tax increases in two years — at least not to pay for drainage projects,” he said.

Curran added a few points, which he said he hoped residents would take away with them:

• Delaware is flat, and when there is a great deal of rain, “There will be temporary flooding”;

• Individual homeowner lots in subdivisions that were incorporated into the town that have grading issues are a homeowner issue, not a Town issue;

• The Town does not need an easement to perform work in its own right-of-way;

• Homeowners who place plantings, ornaments, etc., in the Town’s right-of-way are trespassing and are responsible for replacing or repairing anything damaged or destroyed by those items;

• When the Town has an easement on a property, it will repair or replace anything damaged by the work being done; and

• The fact that the Town has an easement to perform work does not mandate that the Town has to perform the work.

Wedgefield resident Ruth Diggs said her family owns a vacation home in Ocean View and hope to one day live in town full-time. She questioned the recent switch to Sussex County tax assessments.

Curran said the switch to county assessments was to save the Town approximately $250,000, and blamed himself for not doing his due diligence on the resulting impacts on individual tax bills.

“From my perspective, that was a mistake for us to switch. It was an absolute mistake,” he said. “While we defended the 50 percent tax increase ... not only did people get hit with more than the 50 percent, some people got a reduction… We will find a cure for it.”

“Are you going to pay me back when we fix it?” asked Diggs.

“I’m not going to say yes or no, because I want to get all the facts in front of us before any decision is made to go in any direction.”

Schrader said that one thing that gets overlooked is that the assessments the Town is using have been used by Sussex County since the 1970s.

“Just keep in the back of your mind — everything you say about us is equally true about your County taxes,” he said. “You’ve been living with those same assessments… Even though we may work on fixing our tax assessments, it does not cure the County’s.”

Resident Jim Carr said he has trouble believing his Town taxes are within $200 of what he pays in taxes to the State of Delaware.

“A bunch of people are being overcharged in their taxes, and we need to do something about it immediately,” he said, asking when residents can expect a proposed solution to the problem.

Curran said he estimated having a solution to announce at the council’s next meeting, which will be in September.

In other Town news:

• Steve Strong asked the council to help him reduce the speed limit on Muddy Neck Road from 45 mph to 35 mph.

“Many in our local community are very much concerned about the dangerous conditions along this road,” he said. “It’s extremely dangerous. I regard it as an accident waiting to happen.”

Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin praised Strong, saying he saw a problem and is trying to solve it.

McLaughlin said he had spoken with new Ocean View Planning & Zoning Director Ken Cimino and Vogel about the issue, and the Town has reached out to the Delaware Department of Transportation regarding the concern.

“They’re going to give us some leeway in establishing speed limits on that section,” he said, noting that DelDOT still has to approve their findings.

DelDOT officials are scheduled to visit next week to lay down traffic counters to get a better sense of traffic on the road.

McLaughlin said his department would be doing extra work on the road in the meantime.

“I share the concerns,” he said, noting that an officer recently issued a ticket to a vehicle traveling 71 mph in the marked 45 mph zone. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

• The Town received two letters — one from an individual looking to develop property and another actively developing another property — requesting zoning allowances be granted to them for properties whose zoning does not coincide with their request.

Schrader noted that what both parties were seeking is a change to the text of the Land Use & Development Code, which would require public hearings and meetings.

“It is not something we can change by simply putting it on the agenda,” he said, noting that the parties would have to contact the Planning & Zoning Department to follow the proper procedures.

• Vogel formally introduced Cimino, who had just completed his second week of work for the Town.

• The council voted 5-0 to establish an account for funds to be used for recreation and open space development, and to open a Raymond James investment account for investment of trust funds.

• The Ocean View Town Council will not meet in the month of August. The next monthly meeting will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m.

By Maria Counts
Staff Reporter