Editor’s note: This article has been edited since it was originally published to reflect that mayor and city council will not take any more verbal comments on Donovan-Smith. The city will take written comments, in English or Spanish, until noon, Friday Oct. 6.
The co-owner of the Donovan-Smith Manufactured Home Park made a rare appearance at Lewes Mayor and Council’s Sept. 25 public hearing to refute what he called misinformation about what’s happening in the community.
Ken Burnham said he is one of 20 owners of Donovan Smith MHP LLC, which was purchased in 2002.
Burnham’s comments at the meeting contrasted with residents who paint a much different picture of life in the neighborhood.
Carol Parsons said she lives across the street from the field where raw sewage has bubbled up for years.
“Our children used to play in that field, unaware that those puddles were sewage. They used to play beside the berm between Central Avenue and Cooper Circle until we realized the weeds growing over it were growing over an old city dump,” she said.
“We have done two environmental assessments at that property and it is not a dump for toxic waste. It’s not a dump. It has never been a dump,” Burnham said.
“We’ve struggled a bit with the septic, but there are no current violations at the property. Any violations that have popped up, we’ve done our best to take care of. The water has never been a problem. The construction that’s going on to provide water and sewer for the residents will be a definite benefit for them,” Burnham said.
The Lewes Board of Public Works is in the middle of a $5.6 million project to connect the community to city water and sewer. That work is scheduled to be done in November 2024.
Burnham presented a color-coded map that he said shows what an updated Donovan-Smith neighborhood might look like.
He compared Donovan-Smith to a project he did this year at a community he owns in New Bern, N.C., called Fox Chase. Burnham said Fox Chase has 165 lots and is similar in age and lot size to Donovan-Smith.
“The person I bought it from had let it deteriorate over time,” he said. “I brought 25 new homes into the property, mostly two-bedroom homes. I’m renting them for $1,100 to $1,300 a month, and there’s a waitlist for those homes.”
The city is proposing an ordinance that would bring the community up to current code. It was annexed into the city in 2022.
For years, Donovan-Smith residents have been pleading with the owners to clean up the overflowing septic tanks, fix decaying streets and update the electric system.
Residents also want more open space, better street lighting and assurances that any new homes will not be placed closer than 20 feet to each other, which creates a fire hazard.
“There is a myth out there that these code revisions would create some sort of windfall for the property owner, which is ludicrous,” said John Paradee, Burnham’s attorney.
Paradee listed all the contributions the owner is making, including a $318,000 sewer impact fee, interest on the $5.6 million loan to connect the sewer and water, and $15,000 to $20,000 per month to pump septic tanks.
Paradee said the owner will have to pay water and sewer fees for all residents for the next 20 years. The owner also plans to install 30 new homes at a cost of more than $2 million, if the city approves the code changes.
But, he said, Donovan-Smith is doomed if the city does not approve code changes.
“Approximately 90% of the homes are legally nonconforming, so they can stay, but the minute they leave, they cannot be replaced. Each of those lots will become vacant and the community will go from 50 to 40 to 30 homes, and, over time, [Donovan-Smith] will no longer exist,” he said.
After the meeting, Burnham said he visited Donovan-Smith a couple of months ago.
“It looked the same as it always does, an older park that needs new homes to make it look good,” he said. “[The residents] can say what they want about what was dumped there, but it was there before I bought the park. Their future will be a lot better when they have public water and sewer and new homes in the park, upgrade the whole park and make their homes worth more money,” he said.
The Sept. 25 public hearing did not include a Spanish translator like a Donovan-Smith meeting hosted by the city in August.
Charito Calvachi-Mateyko, chair of the Votamos, We Vote Coalition, urged mayor and city council to do more to represent the entire Donovan-Smith community.
“You should find a way to go there and let people know in a culturally appropriate way. You are the ones who have the leadership to do the right thing,” she said.
“I would invite you to look back at when we chose to annex this property, and the discussion we had about the difficulty this city would face in doing that, and it wouldn’t be a switch that just turned,” said Mayor Andrew Williams in response.
Mayor and city council will not take any more verbal comments on Donovan-Smith.
The city will take written comments, in English or Spanish, until noon, Friday Oct. 6.