Posted on September 29, 2021
FENWICK ISLAND – Delays in permitting and uncertainty regarding a public-private partnership between the town and a local developer have cast a shadow over a dredging project in Fenwick Island.
Last Friday, the Fenwick Island Town Council voted unanimously to spend $51,000 for soil and archeological studies of the Little Assawoman Bay. While the town had already completed some of the testing to apply for a dredging permit, officials last week said the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) did not accept them.
“My understanding is there was already geotechnical and chemical makeup done. At this point, they have not been accepted by DNREC. We have to do them again,” said Fenwick Island Dredging Committee member George Murphy. “In addition to that, the Army Corps has placed another caveat on us, and that’s an archeological review of the area we intend to dredge.”
Plans for a dredging project in the Little Assawoman Bay began in earnest in 2018, when the town council hired former DNREC administrator Tony Pratt to guide them through the funding and permitting processes. By the following year, Anchor QEA, a Lewes-based engineering firm, was brought on board to provide design, bidding and construction managements services.
Simply put, the estimated $1.1 million dredging project is expected to address shoaling in the back-bay system and connect boating channels along Fenwick’s bayside canals to the main channel in the Little Assawoman Bay. As part of that effort, between 17,000 and 19,000 cubic feet of dredged material would be moved to another site for reuse.
Since 2019, the town has worked with the Carl M. Freeman Companies to relocate the material to one of its properties, making the public-private partnership one that would save the town millions of dollars. Last week, however, officials announced the Freeman Companies has decided to accelerate its project timeline for the identified spoil site – a parcel of land off Route 54 that has been approved for a 70-lot subdivision.
“We have a draft MOU (memorandum of understanding) with Freeman. It was never signed, it was never agreed to,” said Councilman Bill Rymer, member of the town’s dredging committee. “Freeman is reconsidering their own timing and have basically told us they do not expect to wait for our spoilage. They are going to press on.”
Officials said it is yet to be seen if the town can reach some sort of agreement with Freeman Companies to place the dredged materials on the site of the developer’s proposed hotel project. They noted, however, that it would increase the cost of the project.
“The consultants came out and said this could increase to $1.3 million or $1.4 million,” Rymer said. “Because we never got this stuff finalized, we’re now playing catch-up. Freeman is changing their approach … but it’s the fact that we’re following behind them.”
Rymer noted the town will now need to complete two more studies to secure dredging permits for the project, in addition to seeking another site to place the dredged material. Those two setbacks, he said, will push the project start date into the fall of 2022.
Resident Bernie Merritt, former councilman and dredging committee chair, told councilmembers last week he didn’t like the insinuation that the committee wasn’t doing its job. He then went on to highlight the committee’s efforts in the past two years.
“A lot of this has turned around in literally the last 60 days,” he said. “This has flipped.”
Rymer said his explanation of the situation wasn’t an accusation toward anyone, but simply the facts. In response, Merritt encourage the town to secure an agreement with Freeman, as its property was the only feasible location for placing dredged material.
“I’d just hate for the town to miss this public-private partnership,” he said. “We can’t do this without them, moving this material to that location. We can’t afford to ship it out of here. It would be millions of dollars to freight it out of here.”
“If we can’t make it happen with Freeman, you now have to start involving DNREC into where would they allow us to put it,” he added.
During Friday’s meeting, Mayor Vicki Carmean asked the council for a motion to complete the two dredging studies at a cost of $51,000. Residents, however, questioned why the town would proceed with the two studies if it hadn’t identified a place to put the dredged materials.
“Before you spend $51,000, you better go out and try to find, first, an alternative location,” said resident Bill Weistling. “If you have to truck this material out of here, that $1 million is going to go up to about $3 million or $4 million and you’re wasting the $51,000.”
Rymer, however, noted there was still a chance the town could work with Freeman to identify another location.
“By no means did they say no,” he said.
After further discussion, the council voted 7-0 to complete the two studies using $51,000 from the town’s dredging fund.
“I want to be sure that money is there if we want to nail down the permitting process,” Carmean said.