Earleville Stream Project Could Cost Cecil County: A Cecil Times Special Report

April 20, 2011

An environmental group has asked the Cecil County Commissioners to assume ownership of a 72 acre pond and land on Mill Lane in Earleville as part of a long-stalled environmental project. But a Cecil Times review found the county could be on the hook for as yet unknown costs and a state grant that was said to be in the offing to buy the property is not on the state’s radar screen.

Rob Etgen, director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, on Tuesday outlined a plan to restore an offshoot of Scotchman’s Creek that was damaged when a dam and roadway collapsed after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The project involves multiple state and federal agencies and a federal plan adopted in 2008 estimates the costs of the project– to allow fish to migrate more freely through a 1,000-foot passageway– at $543,710.

But that doesn’t cover the costs of acquiring about 25 acres of privately owned land adjacent to and below the pond area around Mill Lane, land which has changed hands –for prices as high as $850,000– multiple times in the past four years and is now owned by a Delaware investment group, according to state property records.

Without some form of public ownership of the land adjacent to the stream, citizens would not have access to the water, according to Etgen.

Etgen claimed, during an appearance before the Cecil County Commissioners onTuesday, that the State Dept. of Natural Resources would provide an unspecified amount of money to purchase the site while other state and federal agencies would pay for the stream improvements. But Etgen said the project could be thwarted unless the county government agreed to act as the owner and caretaker for the property because the state would require assurances “in perpetuity” that the land was held in public trust.

“We can’t go forward with this,” he said, unless the county is “a partner on this.”

He said the state DNR’s Program Open Space would pay for the land acquisition as “passive recreation” with a parking area, picnic tables and a canoe and kayak boat launch area. He did not specify which side of the stream would house those amenities.

However, Carrie Lhotsky, program administrator of the DNR’s Program Open Space, told Cecil Times that the state program has no funds available for the site acquisition and it is not on the program’s priority list. She said if Cecil County wanted to acquire the property, it would have to apply to the state and use the county’s regular allocation of open space funds for the Mill Lane project.

The county has generally used its limited state open space funds for recreation and parks projects serving a broader number of residents, such as ball fields and community parks. The Mill Lane area is located down a winding, narrow road in a low-population farm area of Earleville. (County sources said the local allocation for state open space funds is generally less than $100,000 a year—far less than the land in question is worth.)

The fate of Mill Lane has been a topic of passionate debate for years in the Earleville area, since a roadway and bridge crossing the stream was deemed unsafe several years before a total collapse of the road and the dam failure in the hurricane. Some local residents wanted the county to rebuild the bridge and the roadway to restore local car access across the stream. But the county decided in 2007 not to repair the road and the dam, citing potential costs of over $5 million, according to commissioner meeting minutes.

A federal environmental plan for the area, adopted in June, 2008, called for removal of the remnants of the dam with no plans or funds for replacement of the bridge and roadway. That plan is now the basis of the project outlined to the Commissioners by Etgen. (See link to federal plan here: http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/spectron/restore.html

A public information meeting was held in the county by federal agencies on 4/9/08 on the overall stream improvements and debris removal and federal officials deemed that session as counting as required public hearings before certifying its plan as a “final” project plan. However, that plan does not specify private property acquisition costs and only suggests that if any “recreation” amenities were included, Cecil County would have to pay for them.

Since the feds adopted their plan, the concept was raised in a closed-door county commissioners work session on 2/24/09, at which there was discussion of possible DNR acquisition of 72 acres as a “potential reservoir site” and possible “passive recreation,” according to a brief summary of the meeting.

The Cecil Times has obtained a copy of a 3/17/09 letter from three county commissioners to state open space program officials that committed the county to removing remnants of the Mill Lane roadway and remnants of a “box culvert”– but made no mention of county assumption of costs or responsibilities for ownership of the adjoining land. The letter was signed by former Commissioners’ president Brian Lockhart, former Commissioner Wayne Tome, and current commissioners’ Board President James Mullin (R-1.) Former commissioner Rebecca Demmler (R-2) and current Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) did not sign the letter.

Meanwhile, the two privately-owned parcels of adjacent land identified by Etgen as crucial to the project are listed on state records as having different ownership than Etgen’s statement to the county commissioners.

A Cecil Times review of state property records, business registrations and other documents show that two parcels of land involved in Etgen’s request to Cecil County have changed ownership repeatedly among investors in recent years while the stream/pond restoration plan was pending.

Contrary to Etgen’s written statement to the county commissioners, the two parcels of land, totaling 24.4 acres adjoining the project area, are currently owned by F&C Maisons, LLC, with a Newark, DE address, according to state land records.

Those records also show the two parcels were originally sold by the Valente family, which had owned the land for many years, for $850,000 on 8/18/06 to “Three Friends Investments, LLC,” a Delaware investment group. Then, the land was sold on 8/17/10 to James A. Ferraro, a Delaware chiropractor, and sold again a month later on 9/22/10 for zero dollars to another Delaware investment group in a “non-arms length” transaction. The current owners list the same Newark, DE address as Dr. Ferraro’s chiropractic office.

Cecil Times has called Dr. Ferraro for comment and will update this report upon his response.

Former Cecil County Commissioner Bill Manlove lives on Mill Lane on the east side
of the site and has been criticized by some local residents for not wanting to have the bridge and roadway restored because it would move traffic past his home.

Manlove told Cecil Times that the costs to the county of restoring a bridge and roadway over Mill Lane would have been prohibitive and for that reason, not his personal residence, he did not support citizens’ demands for replacing the road and bridge. He pointed out that the federal stream plan did not include a road/bridge replacement proposal.

He said that no one, including his old friends at the ESLC organization, told him or other nearby landowners about the recently revived stream/pond project and its call for county land ownership and a parking lot and boat launch area. “It would be nice if they had the courtesy to call me and the other landowners,” Manlove said.

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