Lewes Mayor and City Council voted unanimously to annex the Donovan-Smith Manufactured Home Park during a special meeting April 14, finalizing a process that began in January 2018.
For years residents have been pleading for help after what has been described as decades of neglect by park ownership. Council applauded the efforts of Sussex County Councilman Mark G. Schaeffer, the State of Delaware, numerous state agencies, and the residents of Donovan-Smith for bringing the issues to light and working to provide humanitarian solutions. Annexation paves the way, literally, for improved roads in the community, and access to clean water and a compliant sewer system provided by the Lewes Board of Public Works.
Park residents rejoiced over the decision to include their neighborhood in the city after the park owner recently claimed he would not move forward with connecting to BPW services without annexation. John Paradee, the park owner’s attorney, said his client would have had to pay 50% higher rates if the park was not annexed.
Calls for annexation began in 2017, and recent public health violations have only amplified cries for justice. Residents frequently complained of yards full of wastewater, the inability to consume the park’s drinking water, and the accelerated erosion of appliances caused by the water. Roads remain in poor condition, and according to one resident, the electrical infrastructure within the park regularly fails. Along with every road in the park being paved, annexation will allow for an upgrade of the electrical system.
Donovan-Smith is the pilot project of Gov. John Carney’s Clean Water Initiative for Underserved Communities, which was proposed to protect public health while minimizing environmental hazards and risk for all Delawareans.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issued two violations in 2021 due to unsanitary conditions.
Under a memorandum of understanding, the owner of the property will be responsible for water and sewer costs for the next 20 years and will be prohibited from increasing rent to pay for the installation of those services.
The MOU, signed Dec. 17 by the secretaries of DNREC and the Department of Health and Human Services, authorized a $2.74 million loan to the BPW to connect Donovan-Smith into Lewes’ central sewer system and another $2.87 million to the BPW to connect it to the city’s municipal water system.
Financing for the project has been made available through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, allowing the loans to be forgiven once construction is completed. The DSWRF, a program within DHHS, forgives loans funding projects like Donovan-Smith so communities that have been exposed to unreasonable hardships in dealing with noncompliant systems will not be a further burden when corrections are made to provide safe, clean drinking water.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I’m very happy we have finally crossed this marker, and I do believe that with the Clean Water Act and support of the state and all of the levels that we have been talking about ... we will be able to address the concerns that have been raised,” said Mayor Ted Becker.
While all five members of council voted yes, Councilman Tim Ritzert placed a caveat in his yes vote – the MOU must be signed by all parties within 30 days. Ritzert called the living conditions in the park deplorable, and questioned the motives behind the park owner’s latest legal maneuvers, such as his refusal to sign the MOU without annexation.
“He has 30 days from today to execute that MOU, as do all the other parties too,” Ritzert said. “The critical thing he objected to for the last three months ... he has it now. He needs to put ink to paper, sign the agreements and get that process started.”
The initiative calls for installation of 5,000 feet of sewer main to connect the park to the Lewes sewer collection on Donovans Road along with 23 manholes and 1,500 feet of house sewer services for 88 houses. Lewes BPW will also install nearly 1,000 feet of 12-inch main to connect to an existing main and 4,500 feet of internal main along with meters, service lines, valves and fire hydrants within Donovan-Smith.
BPW General Manager Austin Calaman said work on Donovans Road has already begun and they will be able to begin construction of entry points for the systems immediately, but certain work requires all parties’ signatures on the MOU before it can begin. Conservatively, the water and sewer will be operational in the park in the next 12 to 16 months, Calaman said.
Sam Saunders, president of the DSMHP Homeowners Association, says septic tanks are still overflowing almost daily and he believes pumping needs to be done 2-3 times a week in the meantime. The newly installed septic systems on the property have already been exposed following recent rains, and on April 15 there was wastewater sitting in the middle of a field without a barrier around it.
Council members also brought up concerns with DNREC’s handling of the soil that had been removed from faulty septic systems, soil that sits in mounds on the property. Saunders says that on a windy day, the contaminated soil blows all over the park, often in the direction of the floodplain. Another concern within the park is various empty lots that still have utility hook-ups exposed, including an abandoned oil tank that sits under an electrical pole on a field containing a septic tank Saunders claims overflows often.
Donovan-Smith’s property owners and residents once had to comply with Sussex County’s codes and ordinances; now they will have to comply with the Lewes city code. They have been brought in as nonconforming and all 88 current occupied homes have been grandfathered in under a special use. However, there is a total of 127 lots on the property - some empty while others are abandoned - and any home coming in will have to be compliant.