LEWES — Annexation into the city of Lewes looms as the linchpin for a manufactured home community coping with raw sewage that poses public health concerns and potential groundwater pollution.
Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control served notice July 8 to Donovan Smith Mobile Home Park, LLC for violation of state law governing wastewater treatment and disposal systems at its mobile home community off Savannah Road.
Donovan Smith MHP, which has been identified as a pilot community in a state initiative that ties in to legislation signed into law Thursday by Gov. John Carney, was found to be out of compliance with the community’s onsite wastewater treatment system, posing risks to public health and the environment, DNREC said.
“This action follows several months of work to document the ongoing onsite wastewater treatment and disposal violations at the Donovan Smith Manufactured Home Community,” said DNREC Sec. Shawn Garvin.
“It sets enforceable deadlines to fix the issue for residents in this community and pushes the improved sewer connection project forward, the first project under an important plan to address wastewater and drinking water issues in underserved communities throughout Delaware.”
To eliminate risks to public health and the environment, DNREC’s notice calls for “interim actions including cordoning off areas where wastewater surfacing has occurred in the manufactured home community, and a mandatory pumping of the community septic system to mitigate further wastewater surfacing and groundwater pollution within the community while Donovan Smith moves toward the sewer connection working with the city of Lewes Board of Public Works.”
Lewes resident Mark Schaeffer, District 3’s Sussex County Council representative, claims DNREC has failed to address this issue.
“That’s really, just in my opinion, DNREC throwing us a bone. That was issued two weeks ago,” said Mr. Schaeffer, after visiting the mobile home park off Savannah Road Tuesday.
“We still have no fence up around the raw sewage that’s laying on top of the ground, and sinkholes are still not repaired or fenced off. There are sinkholes out there that could swallow a small child or large dog.”
Secretary Garvin reported that as of Thursday, signage in the Donovan Smith park has been put up, impacted areas are at least temporarily roped off, efforts are under way to put in more secure fencing and septic pumpout is underway.
Lewes Mayor Ted Becker said the mobile home park is welcome to hook up to the city’s water and sewer systems and that eventually is the hope.
“But they have to be annexed in order to do that. We are all ready to do that, but there are some issues that have to be resolved between the owner of the property and DNREC in terms of easements, and those are being worked on,” said Mayor Becker.
“On annexation, we already signed the papers, a long time ago,” said Kenneth Burnham, Donovan Smith property owner, in a brief phone call.
Signed by Gov. Carney Thursday, House Bill 200/Clean Water for Delaware Act creates a new Clean Water Trust to protect Delaware waterways and rebuild Delaware’s drinking water infrastructure with a focus on underserved communities.
“We’ve been focusing on Donovan Smith and the partnership with Lewes as part of our Clean Water initiative for underserved communities,” said Secretary Garvin. “And Donovan Smith was identified early as really the pilot project for that. We have been working with Lewes and they have been incredible partners. Yes, that (annexation) is the key to getting them connected to Lewes.”
Approximately $2.3 million via a forgivable loan through DNREC is earmarked for the Donovan Smith infrastructure proposal, Secretary Garvin said.
“We’re estimating in the neighborhood of $2.3 million. We have a pot of funds that are designated for this type of effort. As you know, until you get the engineering, and start to actually break ground, that number could change,” Secretary Garvin said. “So, what it is ultimately going to be is a 20-year loan that can be forgiven — if the owner has done all of the things that are necessary.”
“It is a loan that will turn into a grant,” Mayor Becker said. “The condition of the funding that DNREC is providing is that they be annexed into the city. We are prepared to do that.”
“Back in 2018 we began the conversations of how we finally tackle this issue?” said Secretary Garvin. “Donovan Smith has been the pilot. We have some other short-term communities we’re looking to focus on. We have 16 listed in the initiative as kind of the short-term that we want to focus on. We know that there are other communities but for various reasons they will be focused on in the next phase.”
Currently, Donovan Smith MHP has a collection system for waste and wells for water.
Routine monitoring of the onsite drinking water system by Delaware’s Division of Public Health shows no indication the community drinking water wells have not been impacted by ongoing wastewater compliance issues, Secretary Garvin said.
Mr. Schaeffer disagrees.
“DNREC makes the claim that the wells are fine, and they test them periodically. But I can tell you that the dozen or so homeowners that I have talked to do not drink the water because it smells like sewage. They cannot wash their clothes because when they do … it smells like sewage,” said Mr. Schaeffer. “I talked to a couple homeowners out there this morning (Tuesday) and they can’t flush their toilets. The tanks are full. And in the middle of a drought we have raw sewage running on top of the ground.”
“They are making an attempt to pump out tanks, but they are not keeping up with the flow that is coming out of the homes,” said Mr. Schaeffer. “They just can’t keep up.”
With appropriations in recent state budgets and other initiatives, including the Clean Water for Delaware Act, Secretary Garvin said DNREC and the state are better positioned to meet challenges and obstacles.
“Nobody could really figure out how to a get at this challenge. You had community residents who were looking at their septic system and their well water regardless of how they were performing as being free,” Secretary Garvin said. “So, trying to get them onto public systems has been a struggle.”
“Also, there wasn’t the financing that wasn’t going to either able to be there to support these projects and not have the cost either be passed along to the residents, or more concerning and this has been really the balancing act … the owners of the manufactured home park say, ‘Forget it. I’m just going to shut it down.’ Then, what happens to residents?” said Secretary Garvin. “The mobile home park owner owns the land, and homeowner owns the manufactured home, and a lot of these you couldn’t move them two feet.”
Secretary Garvin concurred Donovan Smith MHP never renewed their septic system permit after it expired in 2008 and has since been operating without one.
“That is the case. We reflect that in our NOV to them. There is kind of what we would term ‘administrative extension,’ if situations haven’t changed,” Secretary Garvin said. “Clearly, we’d like to have all permits be up to date but generally there is a concept of administrative extension that if terms haven’t changed, laws haven’t changed that with all other … We don’t necessarily look at that as being problematic. Yes, the last time they were slated to be renewed as 2008. But in and of itself that is not necessarily an issue as it relates to operation and maintenance.”
According to its notice, DNREC has been working with the Department of Health and Social Services and the Delaware Housing Authority “to develop a priority list for underserved communities that have water and wastewater issues. The project for Donovan Smith Manufactured Home Community aims to end water pollution at the site by eventually tying the community’s wastewater discharge into the city of Lewes central sewer system.”
“The NOV documents ongoing noncompliance at the manufactured home community and establishes deadlines for Donovan Smith MHP, LLC to correct the problem and move forward on the sewer connection with financing from the underserved communities’ initiative administered by DNREC and DHSS,” DNREC’s notice stated.
“Shame on Secretary Shawn Garvin. They have a thousand excuses,” said Mr. Schaeffer. “But I think that waiting since 2008 is long enough to wait for a solution. DNREC has the ability to take this to court and take the park into receivership and run the water and sewer lines with a court order.”
Secretary Garvin disputed Mr. Schaeffer’s receivership claim.
“That is not accurate. We do not have the authority for receivership. We do have other legal authorities. The NOV was the first step, which identifies the problem and provides short-term and long-term direction on what needs to be done,” Secretary Garvin said.
“We will then figure out if there are any other steps that we need to take as it relates to our enforcement authority. If they are not acting on the NOV as prescribed, then we have ability to do orders and other things that are legal processes. But not taking receivership of the community. that is definitely not one of those.”
Secretary Garvin said he recognizes Mr. Schaeffer is “looking for action for his community. He and I did have a conversation late last week. But some of his comments are not coming from a place of knowledge.”
“I have had similar conversations with Mayor Becker and similar conversations with Sen. (Ernie) Lopez and Rep. (Steve) Smyk. I have explained to them … what the process is and what the paths are,” said Secretary Garvin.
“Our goal is to not only address the issues in this community, but really use this as part of the framework in moving forward on how we are going to address other communities that find themselves in similar situations.”