'Study' could impact hundreds of properties, owners

While Millsboro is the only town that has, to date, held a formal vote on a resolution to support the Route 113 Blue Alternative as-is – the vote passed with only one dissenter, Councilman Greg Hastings – there is plenty of opposition to the plan farther south in the Route 113 corridor and even legislatively – including some from state Sen. George Bunting, who was among the first legislators to inquire about the possibilities of such a project.

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“I’m at a disconnect as to how it got from a study to over $14 million spent and an $800 million project,” he said, adding that, with the state already leasing land from individuals, it seems as though the route for the project is already definite.

“Now, looking at an eastern bypass and one or two individuals or more getting $50,000 to $60,000 per month – it looks like they have chosen the destination by doing that. But they say in meetings, ‘It depends on the funding.’”

Of payment agreements made by the State of Delaware to some affected property owners in preparation for the project, Bunting asked rhetorically, “How do you justify that? If it was in the next few years, that’s a whole new ballgame.”

Bunting said he understands that Millsboro has issues to the east and west but doesn’t see why a bypass is needed south of Millsboro.

“Why do they need a bypass below Millsboro? It is a seasonal issue for Dagsboro, Frankford, Selbyville… There’s never been a traffic issue in Frankford.”

DelDOT officials emphasized is that, while there are no “leases,” per se, for any of the properties, there are “agreements that pay interest on the fair market value for the parcels to remain undeveloped.”

According to information gathered by the Coastal Point under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks in May of 2010 proposed an agreement to Preston Shell – a managing member of HKS3 LLC – regarding the proposed Moorings at Pepper Creek development in Dagsboro and has had an agreement with Patriots Landing LLC – signed by that company’s president, Carl T. Bochau – since February of 2008.

According to Donna Miller of DelDOT’s legal division, “Moorings at Pepper Creek and Patriot’s Landing were already into the subdivision process when it was determined we would need the area for the corridor. The process for those two developments was stopped. All other parcels with impacts are still controlled by and being used for profit by their owners,” who are farmers.

In May, Wicks sent Schell and HKS3 a letter proposing that DelDOT compensate the partnership in the amount of $70,000 for the “interest carry-up through the month of March” and proposed that, from April forward, the department pay them $10,100 in estimated actual interest expenses per month.

In her letter, Wicks stated “This compensation will continue until the Department is able to either purchase the property needed for our project or we determine that we no longer anticipate a need for any portion of this property.”

The State of Delaware has actually had an agreement with Patriot’s Landing LLC since February of 2008, and in 2010 that agreement was amended to include extending the automatic expiration date of the agreement from July 1, 2010, to July 1, 2012.

According to DelDOT, Patriot’s Landing – approximately 158 acres of unimproved land in the Millsboro area – would be affected by any of the remaining Route 113 alternatives except the “no build” alternative, and the agreement involves reservation payments in the amount of $50,000 per month. In the period from Feb. 1, 2008, to Jan. 31, 2009, a single lump sum of $600,000 – representing payments due from that period – was paid.

In the agreement, DelDOT states that, “DelDOT is engaged in a study to identify, select and protect an alignment for a new limited access U.S. 113 Highway (Road Project)” and “although DelDOT has not yet selected its ‘preferred alternative’ for the road project, all of the alternatives presently being considered by DelDOT (except no-build) would involve a taking of all or a portion of the property, but DelDOT is unable to say at this time what, if any, portion of the property, or if all the property is to be taken.”

It is those agreements that Bunting was referring to, saying, “If they were working on an intersection in one or two years and needed the land, that makes a lot of sense. But, here, I don’t follow the logic. If everybody’s being honest, there is no money to do the project, and this project may never happen. It’s questionable if it is ever going to be funded, so why are we paying for leases?”

DelDOT Project Manager Monroe Hite III explained that, for those who are immediately affected – for example, those who are currently trying to sell their land but are having difficulty because of the state’s plans for corridor preservation on or near their property – there are applications for hardship relief that are available on a first-come, first-served basis (subject to available funds).

According to DelDOT’s site, the State can permanently acquire properties within a project corridor under protective/hardship acquisition once a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) – including a Recommended Preferred Alternative – is available to the public, which is scheduled for December of this year.

Bunting recently sent a letter to Wicks, asking specifically about the justification of the land agreements in a down market, the impacts of the project on agriculture and the environment, and how things have evolved to this point since his original senate resolution in 1999.

“What I requested in 1999 was a feasibility study, not an open-ended authorization to engage in unlimited expenditures on engineering studies – each of which makes it that much more likely that DelDOT will try to proceed with the proposals it has apparently favored from the outset,” he stated in the letter to Wicks.

Bunting said he has also written a draft letter to his caucus, because, he said, “The public should know that there are people that have influence with DelDOT, and the [lack of] openness in which a lot of this has been done.”

This week, he questioned the necessity of the project as a whole. “What are we really accomplishing, racing people to Maryland?” he asked.

Bunting wrote in his letter to Wicks that he urges DelDOT to “broaden its thinking and to consider other approaches and other methods of addressing both the short- and long-term transportation needs along the U.S. 113 corridor and its east-west laterals before a public outcry arises that could cause the General Assembly to take action which could delay any course of action.”

(As noted in Part 2 of this series, DelDOT’s work on the Milford section of the bypass was discontinued as of 2007, because of lack of a consensus among community leaders there.)

Bunting said Wicks responded to his September letter, and he and state Reps. Gerald Hocker and John Atkins will meet with her in the first week of December, he said, in an effort to get the department to “fully understand the opposition we have.”

Local farmer Paul Parsons, who recently met with Wicks – along with Bunting, Atkins, state Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee and other farmers – to voice their concerns over the bypass, will have three of his family farms affected by the eastern bypass and/or its connector roads. Two of the farms will be cut in half, and a third by a quarter. One of the farms will be land-locked as a result of the project, the way it is laid out now, so that property will most likely have to be purchased in its entirety by the State of Delaware.

Parsons did not attend the meeting on the project in May of 2007 and instead learned in May of this year exactly what affect it would have on him personally.

“It’s not a good situation for us,” he said. “We have been trying to adapt the farm, with vegetables, to make it more profitable – and the government goes and takes your land? If we wanted to sell, we would have sold when rates were high.”

“If developments are on the map,” Parsons asserted, “they are totally avoiding that field. But if you are a farmer, it’s like there is a bull’s eye on your property.” He added that he is hopeful, though, the meeting with Wicks will mean something, adding, “I think we are getting somewhere…”

Atkins agreed with Bunting, saying that the farms that the project will affect – and the livelihoods of those farmers – simply aren’t worth the tradeoff.

“A lot of the farms are a couple years away from being century farms,” he said. “Five or six years ago, they turned away millions of dollars because they wanted to continue to farm,” he noted of the offers made by developers during the peak of the local real estate market, “and now their livelihood is being threatened – all so people of Baltimore and D.C. can get to their beach house 20 minutes faster?”

Atkins – who represents areas in and around Dagsboro, Frankford and Millsboro as the state Representative for the 41st District – also has reservations about the change in the path of the project closer to those towns that evolved from the investigation into the potential habitat impacts on the Delmarva fox squirrel and other rare creatures around Cow Bridge Branch and Doe Bridge Nature Preserve.

“You are telling me we put a man on the moon and we can’t work around a butterfly?” he asked rhetorically. “That butterfly is there and it isn’t there a quarter-mile down the road? I wasn’t born yesterday.”

DelDOT officials maintain that they would not have been able to get the needed federal and state permits if they were to continue on the path in which the creatures live, even though it would have affected fewer Millsboro-area property owners. They said that, in their investigations, they found there were actually 41 rare species that were unique to that area.

“It was no, and no,” said DelDOT’s Mike Williams, pointing to the more northern alternative options on the map.

Atkins also questioned the need for the project to continue south of Millsboro, as well, saying, “I’ve never been in a traffic jam in Dagsboro, Frankford or Selbyville in my life. Is it warranted?”

DelDOT’s answer to that question is that, with steady population and job growth and expansion of the towns according to their comprehensive plans, the need will be there as time goes on.

The Coastal Point received no response from Dagsboro Mayor Patti Adams when attempting to inquire about her feelings on the Route 113 eastern bypass, but signs are sprinkling the landscape from Dagsboro to Frankford to Selbyville with the message “Say ‘No’ to the Route 113 Eastern bypass” – although who they say “no” to, and whether it would make any difference at this point, is anyone’s guess.

Frankford Town Clerk Terry Truitt said DelDOT had plans to meet with the Millsboro-south towns after the Nov. 2 elections, to clarify their plans and get a consensus – something Hite confirmed.

Hocker, a Republican who represents the state’s 38th District, offered similar sentiments to both Bunting and Atkins, saying that there is a need to bypass Millsboro around Route 24 because of future and present-day traffic concerns, but that he believes an on-alignment project – (to work with and improve the existing Route 113 – farther south is the way to go.

“Once they get through that town, they should stay on-line to the Maryland line,” said Hocker. ”There should be some limited access, but not as much as is planned now. They need to meet one-on-one with those that will be affected. To meet with those that farm it and drive it every day is so much better input than from people in an office in Dover.”

Hocker said that, for those who will be affected, the state needs to purchase the property now, so they can move on. “They don’t need to be in limbo with something that’s pending,” he argued.

Hocker also noted that traffic predictions for 20 to 30 years out are said to be as high as double what they are today. He said people often ask why the State didn’t have long-range plans for the heavily trafficked Route 26 when they could have purchased the property needed to expand it – a project now planned for the near future, but on an extremely limited scale compared to the Route 113 project – but, he said, the public was against the Route 26 expansion at the time.

“They’ve got their work cut out for them,” he said of DelDOT.

Parsons also said he supports the on-alignment option, but that plan is not as popular with Millsboro’s council, including Mayor Larry Gum, who said it would “cut the town in half” and be “unacceptable,” as it would have allowed for only one path for emergency responders and evacuation. On-alignment has not seriously been considered in Millsboro for some years now, because of that vocal opposition.

Gum said he knows there are concerns to the south from some farmers and, he said, “I can understand that.”

“I have always been in favor, but the biggest push was for a bypass around our town,” Gum said. “Traffic continues to get worse every year, and I can’t imagine driving around in 10 years. And the state’s thought was, ‘Why put it there if it doesn’t connect to something?’ Our priority is east/west, but it needed to tie-in to north-south if they were going to do it. How far south it goes is up to the state.”

Gum said he still supports it, but would like to see a defined route, and would like to see if certain farm fields couldn’t be avoided. “Don’t run it where it is not needed.”

“It’s a difficult situation,” he continued. “Each town has different needs. I understand the farmers’ objections farther south, and maybe it isn’t needed down there. But, around Millsboro, it’s an outright necessity.”

Millsboro resident Alfonsie Scott Sr., who remembers when Route 113 from Selbyville to Georgetown was widened to its present state, in 1965, agreed. He said he started paying attention to the workshops after thinking the bypass might affect his property. He really started paying attention in 2006 and went online to research the maps.

Although he won’t see the bypass from his property, he said he will probably be able to hear it. He said he and his family can hear Route 113 traffic now, but the sounds are muffled by the woods – something he won’t have the luxury of with the bypass. Nevertheless, he said he believes it is necessary.

“In the long term, it’s needed. People are steadily moving down here, and the roads now can’t handle the traffic. Over the long term, it will be a good thing. It might just be uncomfortable at first.”

Supporting comments from the May 2010 workshop run the gamut, from the goals of getting congestion out of the towns of Millsboro and Dagsboro to keeping trucks on the bypass, to getting people where they need to go faster.

Opposition came from people worried about environmental impacts, personal property impacts, to it being a symptom of over-reliance on automobiles and a waste of money. The Town of Selbyville sent a letter in May, stating that they “cannot support the project” and that there was a petition turned in to DelDOT this May signed by Selbyville property owners that opposed the project as a whole.

Greg Hastings, the lone Millsboro councilman who this summer voted against the resolution to support the project as-is, agreed that Millsboro’s challenges were east/west, because of the town being literally divided by water – but he said he felt like the “southern portion was less relevant [than the bypass project] would solve the issue for Millsboro.” He also said he thought calling the project “the U.S. 113 North/South Study” was a misnomer, because Millsboro was so focused on fixing their east/west traffic issues.

Hastings explained that he asked at Millsboro’s August council meeting, when they voted on the resolution, whether they were voting on the U.S. 113 North/South Study in its entirety or just as it pertains to Millsboro. After hearing that they were to vote on it in its entirety, he said, he decided he could not yet vote for something that could possibly affect “our southern neighbors” and expressed concern over the “prime farmland in that region.”

“I don’t know to what extent those concerns have been heard,” Hastings said. He also questioned whether people bypassing Millsboro via the project wouldn’t cut the amount of traffic being exposed to new businesses in town, such as the Peninsula Crossing shopping center, which now houses both Lowe’s and B.J.’s, as well as more than a half-dozen smaller businesses.

“I’m concerned,” he said. “Won’t all those people be missing these businesses? I don’t think we had proper discussion that night.”

Regarding the official “working group” that has discussed the Route 113 bypass options at length over the years and has had members come and go, Hastings said he doesn’t think the committee has reconvened to consider whether just doing the east/west piece, without doing the project in its entirety, is possible.

“It needs some research and some communication before the gravel is struck on this decision,” Hastings said.

Jim Bennett, who was a member of that working group, is a farmer from the Frankford area. He won’t be directly affected by the project, but he said he will feel the “ripple effects” and called it an “environmental and financial disaster.”

“When they laid out the eastern bypass, they picked out every viable farm,” Bennett noted. “They are not going to bother subdivisions, so they say, ‘Here is all this nice farmland. Let’s put a highway here.’”

Bennett also said the position property owners would be in with a “corridor preservation plan” on their property – but with the project still being so far off – isn’t fair.

“Once they put a corridor preservation on your property, you can’t do anything with it – yet the state has no money to purchase it,” he said.

“This is a future highway,” Bennett emphasized, “and they have no money to buy [the land], but people can’t build a house or give it to their kids… Use what we have, rather than throw it away and building something else,” he suggested.

In all, the favored Blue Alternative impacts 416 properties. (It impacts the fewest number property owners of the alternatives considered but encompasses the second-highest number of acres among those alternatives). And DelDOT’s response to Bennett’s concerns about those left in limbo – for now – by the project is that people can still make any improvements they would have made and they will be compensated for it, when the time comes, at fair market value.

For example, the developer of Ferry Cove – a not-yet-built development in Millsboro that the proposed route goes through – has been working on obtaining various permits and approvals since 2003, the same year the public workshops for the Route 113 North/South Study started.

Ferry Cove was recently granted approval by Sussex County Council for annexation into the Oak Orchard Sanitary Sewer District, which would provide sewer access to the future development. Hite said the developer has chosen to move forward with his plans, even knowing of the state’s long-range plans for the Blue Alternative – which Hite said he has the right to do.

To some who still farm their open space and who are just years shy of becoming century-farm families, that holds little comfort, and it comes at a cost where they see little value.

“People enjoy driving through the country and seeing the farms on the way to the beach,” said Parsons. “They don’t want a superhighway.”

Ocean City (Md.) Hotel and Motel Trade Association Executive Director Susan Jones said she can see both sides of the issue – of trying to plan for growth and ease of access, and the repercussions to existing businesses.

“From a tourism standpoint, we don’t see a lot of people from Delaware, but we do get the people that come through from New Jersey and New York, and anything that makes travel easier and quicker could be beneficial,” Jones said.

“On the other hand, if you are bypassing mom-and-pop shops along the way, that’s not such a good thing for businesses. It’s definitely a double-edged sword,” she added.

Hal Atkins, director of Public Works for Ocean City, Md., said that, while it is prudent for DelDOT to do such studies – as they can take years – as a citizen of nearby Worcester County, Md., he thinks the Route 113 corridor through Delaware in “no way, shape or form” merits, in terms of traffic, the scope of the project being presented, especially as compared to the need in neighboring Maryland.

“On the surface, the mass amounts of improvements through Delaware on Route 113 are far in advance of those through Maryland,” he said. Speaking about Maryland’s own Route 113 project, which runs from south of Selbyville to Pocomoke, Md., he added, “We don’t have portions of that that are dualized yet” and referenced one recent fatal crash in that section of highway.

“We are still working with the State to being ours up to the level of traffic safety and dualization that Delaware already has,” he pointed out.

“On a high note,” Hal Atkins concluded, “it is nice to know that Delaware is planning that far in advance.”

It is that degree of planning ahead that DelDOT maintains is the purpose of preserving the route now for such a future-focused type of project. Their position is that, if time goes by and land gets built out and more people come here, the human impacts will only be multiplied.

“It would be approximately six to 10 years before any contract is let for anything,” explained Mike Williams of DelDOT. “And if each of those contracts takes two to three years to do, that’s where we start adding up this time to get to the 20- or 30-year timeframe – and we are not going to have enough money to do all of them at once because we’ve got other things going on all across the state. But if we can’t dedicate and determine the way it’s going to go now, all of this land in [for example] Frankford will have been built out, and then we’ll be in a tougher spot.

“People think we have complaints going through the properties we are going through now… If a guy sells his land and they start building houses on it – again, in 10 years, when they have lived there and started a family, etc. – and we say, ‘OK, you’re in the alignment zone... Well, that’s worse.”

In terms of a schedule for the project, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement – with a Recommended Preferred Alternative – is expected in December of this year, and a public hearing on the project will be held in early 2011. DelDOT officials said they expect to publish the DEIS in the fall of 2011and secure a Record of Decision from the FHA by early 2012. But even with a Record of Decision, the process can take years.

“Once we get the Record of Decision, it’s not that everyone starts packing,” said Hite, who admitted they could have explained that more clearly at the May workshop. “That’s not the case. It could be 20 to 30 years until we are ready, and if they want to make improvements, they can.”

Hite also explained that each connector route will have its own project number, design, funding source, schedule, right-of-way acquisition and construction process, and they can do segments over time, “no different than how we did with Route 1.”

Williams chimed in, noting that the process for Route 1 started in the early 1980s and it was completed, in its entirety, some 20 years later.

“We started the design process in 1980 and 1981 and really got going in 1983,” said Williams. “In 1993, we finished the first phase; then 1999; then 2003. So, from when the first [phase] was finished, it took 10 years for the last one to be finished. And prior to the first one even starting, it was 10 years in design. And all kinds of works like this on alternatives… You are in Odessa. Where do you go, etc.…”

Whether the 113 North/South Study will end up being a superhighway to nowhere or the next best thing, only time will tell. But a few things are for certain: It’s already been in the works for a while. It’s not happening tomorrow. And it won’t be cheap.

And it will change the landscape of southeastern Sussex County forever.

Bunting – who grew up near Dagsboro and Frankford, and whose Senate Resolution 20 sparked the feasibility study for which former Secretary Nathan Hayward III earmarked $100,000, which has since grown into a $14 million study on the 35-mile project, with a projected present-day cost of between $600 million and $800 million for the Millsboro-South portion alone – expressed some regret about how things have evolved, though he is doubtful he’ll even be around to see the end result.

“I’ll not live to see it,” Bunting said. “But [it’s about the] legacy you are leaving… I don’t like the idea of losing these farms,” he added.