DNREC details lake ownership, but questions linger

Property owners worry how they will be affected
DNREC Assistant Secretary David Small addresses property owners around Silver Lake and Lake Comegys of the state's ownership of the lakes and DNREC's plans for managing them in the future. BY RYAN MAVITY
October 10, 2013

State officials say Delaware owns Silver Lake and Lake Comegys, but they have made few decisions so far about managing the lake or the shoreline.

Under state ownership, management of the lakes will fall to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. At an Oct. 5 public meeting, DNREC Assistant Secretary David Small reiterated the state’s claim that it owns Silver Lake and Lake Comegys from the bottom to the shoreline.

The meeting, held in Rehoboth Elementary School's auditorium, drew 50 to 75 citizens to ask questions of state officials. The meeting was a mostly civil affair, with the most passionate comments coming from lakefront property owners with questions about how state ownership would affect them.

The state's authority over the lakes had been documented in a 1978 public lands survey, which identified the two Rehoboth lakes as public property. However, Small said the managing the lakes was not on the state’s radar until recently.

“These lakes have suffered from benign neglect on our part,” he said.

Small said the lakes were unique in DNREC’s inventory because they are larger than other small ponds and lakes that the department typically manages.

“These are in much more of an urban environment than what we usually manage,” he said. “The built environment that surrounds these lakes makes them different.”

Small said officials are still wrestling with whether the lakes fall within the Subaqueous Lands Act. DNREC had previously taken the position that the lakes did not fall within the act’s jurisdiction, however, Small said DNREC is working with the Attorney General’s Office to make the case that the law applies to Silver Lake and Lake Comegys. He said the Subaqueous Lands Act, which requires a permit to build on subaqueous land, provides a tool for DNREC to achieve its management goals for the lakes.

Small said DNREC officials are approaching questions of land ownership into the lakes on a case-by-case basis. Small did not say how many property owners claim ownership into the lake.

Several lakefront property owners raised concerns that DNREC was attempting to take over their private property rights.

“Does DNREC have the authority to demand additional land-use restrictions on the above-water grade, privately held land?” asked Peter Gambrill, 2 Silver Lane. “Would you all be able to invoke additional setbacks?” Small said the answer to both questions was no, not without legislative authority.

Burt Flickinger, a resident of East Lake Drive, asked why citizens should listen to DNREC now after the department neglected the lakes for so long.

“This isn’t a land grab that was initiated by the Department of Justice for DNREC,” Deputy Attorney General Ralph “Dirk” Durstein said. “We’re just trying to be responsible and manage this property.”

Charles Fenton, 221 Lake Drive, wondered how the state ownership would affect repairs to his gazebo, for which he has a permit from Rehoboth Beach. Small said while he wished to talk with Fenton one-on-one, the Subaqueous Lands Act allows Fenton to repair his gazebo.

Durstein said the only area where property rights may come into play are for existing structures into the lake, and that the Subaqueous Lands Act provides a management tool to deal with the issue.

Dredging update

Other questions centered on DNREC’s proposed dredging of the west end of Silver Lake. Small said officials budgeted $300,000 for the project, but when it was put out to bid, DNREC received only one bid and it was three times what DNREC had budgeted.

The original plan was to use the Rehoboth Elementary School property as a staging area and to use Geotubes, bags that hold the dredge spoils while slowly filtering the water back into the lake. Once hardened, the spoils would be trucked out and used as fertilizer.

Small and Frank Piorko, director of DNREC’s Division of Watershed Stewardship, said the department is looking at alternatives. Tom Zellers, 308 Stockley St., implored DNREC to take action and not further delay the dredging.

Harvey Waltersdorf, 503 School Lane, whose property borders the westernmost finger of the lake, asked how deep into the west end DNREC would dredge, because it could result in the removal of his pier. Piorko said at this point, DNREC officials are still trying to figure out where the bags will be placed. He said Waltersdorf’s concerns would be taken to heart and if his pier is removed, it would be put back.

Frank Cooper, 96 East Lake Drive, said while he supports dredging, he was concerned about aesthetics if DNREC officials decide to put Geotube bags on the east end of the lake. Piorko and Small said the department is looking at different styles of Geotubes and alternatives for holding the spoils that may not include Geotube bags.

Later, Glen Urquhart, 4 East Lake Drive asked whether there were any plans to put the Geotube bags on the east shore of the lake. Small said it was under consideration, but Piorko said the area had been ruled out. Urquhart said the department should move forward with the dredging project.

“We understand there is a lot of desire to get the dredging settled,” Small said. “We hope by the end of the year or early next year to make some decisions on this.”

Small said DNREC would consider feedback from the Oct. 5 meeting and begin developing a draft management plan. He said the department might hold another public workshop and a public hearing to solicit more feedback.