Maps of the city of Lewes show a peninsula of land behind old Lewes High School and Shields Elementary that is nearly surrounded by the city limits. Its only access is through the city, but for many years, Highland Acres, a 56-home community, has remained part of Sussex County.
That may soon change. While discussing possible water and sewer connections with the Lewes Board of Public Works June 26, residents of the community said they may be interested in annexing into the city.
Following the meeting that night, a group of residents submitted a petition to city hall expressing its desire to join Lewes. City Manager Paul Eckrich said the matter will be addressed at the Monday, July 14 city council meeting.
The debate was brought to the table because some infrastructure in the community is aging and beginning to fail. Many residents are experiencing problems with their septic systems, and they opened a dialogue with the BPW to connect to city services.
In order to do so, Highland Acres residents had two options: get 100 percent participation to sign a pre-annexation agreement or get five residents to sign a petition for annexation and submit it to city hall for consideration. They chose the latter.
“It's a very complicated process that can be made a lot simpler if we take the suggestion and get a petition for annexation right up front,” said Highland Acres resident Dave Bernheisel, who acted as emcee for the meeting. “Then lots of other things will fall into line.”
Eckrich said residents from 19 Highland Acres properties signed the petition.
At the BPW meeting, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas suggested Highland Acres consider annexation, but, he said, the city would not put pressure on residents.
“It's an option, and I think in some ways could make this process move more quickly,” he said.
Highland Acres does not have a homeowners association or an established group that has the legal authority to speak on behalf of all residents. To create one now would be nearly impossible, Mandalas said.
“Generally you find an opposition group that doesn't want a homeowners association,” he said.
Without that group in place, the pre-annexation route becomes very difficult. Typically, Mandalas said, pre-annexation agreements are signed by developers who plan to build on the outskirts of the city. Wolfe Runne and Wolfe Pointe on Gills Neck Road each have a pre-annexation agreement with the city but have remained outside the city limits.
By signing a pre-annexation agreement, a community gives power of attorney to the mayor, who may vote to annex the community at his or her discretion. Mandalas said former Mayor Jim Ford was reluctant to use that method of annexation if he was aware there was opposition. Lewes generally has no track record of hostile annexations through pre-annexation agreements, he said.
If the annexation process moves forward with Highland Acres, the city will set up an annexation committee, which has 90 days to prepare a report.
“My expectation in this instance is that they would not take nearly 90 days,” Mandalas said.
From there an election will be scheduled, where residents from Highland Heights will cast a vote in one booth and residents of the city will cast a vote in another. If a majority are in support of annexation, it will move forward.
BPW General Manager Darrin Gordon worked with engineering firm GMB to provide residents with an estimate to upgrade and connect to the city's water and sewer system and bring the community's streets up to city standard.
All told, he estimates the entire project to cost about $2.25 million. If the project is funded through state loans, which requires paying prevailing wages, the monthly cost to residents is projected to be about $205. If funding is secured through an outside agency such as a bank, Gordon estimates monthly bills to be about $184.
Costs are not affected by residents choosing the annexation route, Gordon said.